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US Foreign Policy Debate Rages, But Fails to Move the Needle

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A series of reports published by Washington-based think tanks populated by former government officials as well as prominent United States scholars has revived debate about American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and the assumptions that underlie it. The debate took on a new sense of urgency as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan just weeks after the withdrawal of US and NATO forces.

The debate is informed by multiple factors: Rival schools of thought about the appropriate drivers of US foreign policy, clashing views of what the country’s national interest in the Middle East is and how that can best be defended, and (mis)perceptions of American commitments to the region, as primarily expressed in the Carter Doctrine, which is widely viewed by Gulf states and many analysts as a blanket security guarantee.

 New Kid on the Block

The debate about fundamentals of US foreign policy erupted just months after US President Joe Biden introduced a more multilateral approach that broke with the isolationist, “America First” strategy of his predecessor, Donald Trump, whose black and white picture of the world persuaded him to support US allies in the Middle East uncritically and unconditionally.

The debate has been fuelled by the arrival in Washington of the latest kid on the block, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, founded in 2019 with the goal of challenging the notion that the US should serve as a global policeman and that a failure to do so, as in Afghanistan, is a sign of weakness and decline. It also seeks to break the current, seemingly militarised mould of US foreign policy. It has most recently been informed by a series of duelling Middle East-related reports published by the Quincy Institute and liberal academics, on the one hand, and, on the other, institutions with more traditional foreign policy approaches, such as the Atlantic Council and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Funded by libertarian businessman Charles Koch and liberal philanthropist George Soros, Quincy, headed by Andrew Bacevich, a conservative historian who served in the US Army and fought in the 1991 Gulf War, promotes a “foreign policy that emphasises military restraint and diplomatic engagement and cooperation with other nations (that) will serve American interests and values better than policies that prioritise the maintenance of US global dominance through force”.[1]

Prominent international relations scholars Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry described the Institute in a critical essay as an “odd alliance of domestic (US) libertarians, balance-of-power-realists and the anti-imperialist left”,[2] schools of thought that have been adversaries for much of their history.

They nonetheless acknowledge the Institute’s impact on the policy debate in the Biden era. “Given its abundant resources in people, ideas and money, and the salience of its pledge to avoid another Iraq war, the Quincy coalition has appeared well-positioned to help shape US foreign policy and, by extension, the world order,” the scholars wrote. They added, however, that the Quincy approach was “fatally flawed” because “its foreign-policy agenda is profoundly outmoded…a critique of the Iraq blunder during the post-Cold War unipolar moment provides little guidance for conducting American foreign policy in response to cascading global interdependence, democratic backsliding, and a historic strategic challenge from an illiberal great power”.[3]

Mr Biden’s staunch defence of the withdrawal from Afghanistan despite the fact that it paved the way for the Taliban’s return to power appeared to reflect, in parallel with Quincy Institute thinking, his long-standing rejection of counter-insurgency as opposed to counter-terrorism notions that had nation-building at their core. The counter-insurgency approach was advocated by former President George W. Bush[4] as well as a class of big-picture US military thinkers such as former generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. “They wanted to try a large-scale counter-insurgency programme in Afghanistan and suggested that (President Barack Obama) could then withdraw safely towards the end of his first term,” noted Middle East scholar Juan Cole.[5] As Vice-President then, Mr Biden, convinced that the generals were wrong and that “it was foolish to think we could do anything more than kill terrorists in Afghanistan”, often sought advice beyond a military command that pushed for the dispatch of additional combat troops, according to Ben Rhodes, then the White House’s Deputy National Security Adviser.

In his withdrawal speech, Mr Biden made that point. “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralised democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: Preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland. I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency or nation building,” Mr Biden said.[6] He was referring to the initial purpose of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan: The toppling of the Taliban and the destruction of Al Qaida, which was hosted in the country, in response to the 9/11 attacks.[7]

Some veterans of US diplomacy suggest that the United States has been hampered in the Middle East by the fact that for decades, it has reacted to events rather than developed a cohesive policy towards the region. “Despite having formally represented American foreign policy in the Middle East from 1963 through 1998, I cannot with any certainty remember that we ever had a defining overarching policy on the region.  My country operated on a patchwork of ideas, interests, and assumptions developed at home and reactions (both considered and not) to whatever was happening anywhere else in the world that might have (or not) any consequences for the region,” said Patrick Theros, a former counter-terrorism official and ambassador to Qatar.[8]

In what could be part of a gradual paradigm shift in US policy, Middle East defence and security analyst Bilal Saab argued that the Biden administration will have to revamp the security aspects of its foreign policy if it wants to truly repair the damage done by the Trump administration’s unilateralist approach. “Washington needs to overhaul how it conducts security cooperation. For too long, this enterprise, run mainly by the US Department of Defense since 9/11, has lacked vision, leadership and organisation. It is too narrowly focused on US military sales and tactical and operational support to partners, and insufficiently attentive to the defence governance and institutional enabling mechanisms that allow for the proper employment and sustainment of US military assistance,” Mr Saab said.[9]

In Mr Saab’s mind, the US should focus on long-term rather than short-term goals, such as building stronger, more sustainable ties to Middle Eastern militaries. That in turn would reduce the risk of America being distracted from its overriding competition with China and Russia.

“Key to this is a determination by US officials not just to train and equip the armed forces and security services of its regional friends, but also to assist them to the extent possible in developing the strategic, institutional, organisational and programmatic fabric of their defence and security sectors. Institutional capacity-building is integral to the success of US security cooperation and assistance programmes because it helps partners improve their abilities to oversee, manage and employ human, materiel and financial resources,” Mr Saab said.

Former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross and one-time National Security Council director of Persian Gulf affairs Kenneth Pollack concluded from separate visits to US allies in the Middle East that they were trying to understand what Washington was seeking to achieve in the region. The Middle East “still lacks a clear region-wide strategy that our friends and partners understand…if Washington is going to overcome that confusion, it will have to articulate an overarching concept that integrates all of the country-specific strategies to accomplish a larger set of goals,” Messrs Pollack and Ross wrote in a summary of their tours.[10]

“Absent such a comprehensive strategy, no Middle Eastern state will understand what the US expects from them, what the US intends to deliver for them, or what regional end-state the US seeks to create — and whether it is an end-state that will meet their own needs. As one high-ranking Middle Eastern leader fretted to us, the United States is signalling to the region: ‘Don’t follow me, I’m lost’,” the two former officials went on to say.

Is America Back?

The notion of a lack of a cohesive policy, coupled with concern over the reliability of the United States as an ally was reinforced by its negotiations with the Taliban and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan, which allowed the militants to retake control of the country . The negotiations focused on getting the US out of a two-decade-long war with little or no consideration of the consequences for Afghan forces and other US allies in the country or its neighbourhood.[11]

As a result, clarity may no longer be enough. The withdrawal sends US allies the same message the Obama administration did in 2011 when it supported change at the expense of long-standing autocratic friends such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It was US support for the popular revolts which toppled Mr Mubarak and three other Arab leaders that spurred countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to greater assertiveness, with at times disastrous consequences – as with the Yemen war. That is not to say that support for the uprising was inherently wrong, but suggests that it was ill-managed and implemented.

The effect of the withdrawal from Afghanistan is being felt far beyond the Middle East, particularly in Asia, where various nations have territorial disputes with China and are likely to question the value of their security cooperation with Washington. The withdrawal and collapse of the Afghan government called into question the meaning of Mr Biden’s assertion that the US is back as a world leader after four years of a foreign policy – driven in part by narcissism – during the Trump administration which resulted in a rejection of multilateralism and a return to isolationism. The chaos that ensued fed Russian and Chinese portrayals of the US as a decaying power that cannot be relied upon.

It further strengthened the positions articulated by the Quincy Institute and Democratic progressives. Emeritus Professor Bacevich, the Institute’s president and retired career US army officer, argued in a recently-published analysis: “Regardless of whether our self-inflicted apocalypse leads to renewal or further, the United States will find itself obliged to revise the premises informing America’s role in the world. Put simply, US policy must change.”[12]

Mr Biden’s rejection of criticism of his decision appeared to acknowledge the need for change. It constituted a rebuttal of the notion that the collapse of the Afghan government and military demonstrated the importance of US military support for its allies. The critics argued that 2,500 – 3,500 American troops backed by the US Air Force had stopped the Taliban from gaining ground beyond Afghanistan’s rural areas until a final date for the withdrawal was announced. But they left unanswered the question of for how long, and at what cost. The answer has potentially far-reaching consequences.

Mr Biden also left unaddressed the efficacy of privatisation of various functions of the US military that contributed to the collapse of the Afghan security forces. “From the beginning, the United States and NATO partners struggled to develop efficacious training programmes. Training concepts and doctrines changed often as different parts of the recruiting and training mission came under different contractors and national oversight,” said South Asia scholar C. Christine Fair. She argued further that the reliance on defence contractors meant that at least 80 per cent of US$144.98 billion budgeted since 2002 for security training, reconstruction, development and humanitarian aid boosted the US rather than the Afghan economy.[13] The flow towards the US rather than the Afghan economy meant that Kabul’s security forces were far too dependent on foreign defence contractors to ensure the creation of an independent police and military that would be able to sustain itself.[14]

A longstanding proponent of a more cohesive US policy in the Middle East, Senator Chris Murphy, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Sub-committee on the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counter-terrorism, has laid out elements of a policy that would stroke with the thinking of the Quincy Institute and Democratic progressives, but raise ire among some of America’s traditional allies.

“The Saudis and Emiratis cooperate with the United States on an awful lot, but they are acting very differently today than they were 30 years ago. They are acting contrary to our interest all over the region, and we should re-orient our relationship with those countries so that we aren’t empowering their bad behaviour…what we want is to try to midwife a conversation about a regional security architecture in which the Iranians and the Saudis and the Emiratis aren’t constantly battling with each other through proxy fights,” Sen Murphy said.[15]

Much like the progressives, the senator based his proposed approach on the belief that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have nowhere else but the United States to go when it comes to ensuring their security. “I just think it’s time to play hardball with the Saudis. I don’t believe this argument that the Saudis are going to walk away from a security alliance with the United States. They will never get from the Chinese nor the Russians what they get from the United States today. Yes, they want more. They want us to be tougher on Iran, but they don’t have another potential partner like the United States,” he said.

Perhaps more fundamentally, he argued that a revamp of US foreign policy was needed because competition with China in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world centred around economics, rather than security. “We should learn from the success the Chinese have had, and we should empower (US) agencies…with the kind of economic assets that can be comparable to the Chinese, which right now we can’t even imagine as a government. That’s in part because no one was ever competing with us on that playing field… It’s not good enough to just offer some ships or some guns. You have to actually be able to offer real development in a way that we can’t today,” he said.

Translating Sen Murphy’s approach into practical steps, the United States could build on the recognition by Arab governments of the need to diversify economies and ensure that they are competitive by helping them fine-tune grandiose plans for change and nudging them towards the judicial, educational and governance reforms that are a prerequisite. Plans like Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030[16] are sweeping, but lack a roadmap for implementation that sets priorities and outlines steps for increased labour productivity, stepped-up innovation, and land reform.[17]

Sen Murphy’s suggestions may have become more immediately implementable in a Middle East that in response to Mr Trump’s fickleness and in a bid to please the former president and Mr Biden’s anticipated policy shifts has, by and large, sought to dial down tensions and shift towards a model of competition and cooperation. Four Arab countries – the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – established diplomatic relations with Israel while Mr. Trump still was in office. Egypt, Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, countries that are at odds with Turkey, are since seeking to take the sting out of their differences. Saudi Arabia and Iran are holding talks mediated by Iraq on regional issues.

Before taking office this year, CIA Director William Burns and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan argued in a 2019 article about Iran that “diplomacy is the best way to test intentions and define the realm of the possible, repair the damage our unilateral turn has inflicted on our international partnerships, and invest in more effective coercion if and when it’s needed to focus minds in Tehran.”[18] Mr Burns argued separately that year that a reduction of tensions would “depend on the prospects for Saudis and Iranians finding some basis for regional co-existence – built not on trust or the end of rivalry, but on the more cold-blooded assumption that they both have a stake in stable competition”.[19] It is a message that most US allies in the Middle East have heard. Israel’s covert war with Iran in Syria and on the high seas may be the exception.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan, coupled with the mixed – at best – record on Mr Biden’s pledge to make human rights a central plan of his foreign policy casts a shadow over the administration’s efforts to shift the paradigm of US foreign policy and is likely to impact its plan to convene a “summit of democracy” in December.[20]

“The sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years and so much investment in lives and effort will see allies and potential allies around the world wondering whether they have to decide between democracies and autocracies, and realise that some democracies don’t have staying power anymore,” cautioned Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.[21]

Carter’s Commitment

The foreign policy debate is further complicated by an evolution of the perceived meaning of US doctrines, first and foremost the one enunciated in 1980 by then-President Jimmy Carter. Misperception of the US commitment put forward by Mr Carter was most recently evident in expectations of how the United States should respond to an escalating Israel-Iran shadow war involving attacks on shipping in the Gulf, including a drone attack on an Israeli-managed oil tanker off the Omani coast, the brief hijacking

of a Panama-flagged vessel, and several other ships reporting having lost navigational control as a result of suspected cyberattacks.[22]

The incidents highlighted the ease with which the US can potentially get sucked into escalations of disputes that are driven by domestic concerns of others. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in contrast to Mr Trump’s refusal to respond forcefully to the 2019 drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities,[23] appeared to leave the door open to US retaliatory action against the alleged Iranian attacks on shipping.

“Iran continues to act with tremendous irresponsibility when it comes to, in this instance, threats to navigation, to commerce, to innocent sailors who are simply engaged in commercial transit in international waters. We are in very close contact and coordination with the United Kingdom, Israel, Romania, and other countries, and there will be a collective response,” Mr Blinken said.[24] Briefing ambassadors of the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defence Minister Benny Gantz identified Saeed Ara Jani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Command, as the person responsible for the attack on the Mercer Street, the Israeli-managed vessel.[25]

The escalating shipping war was sparked, prominent Israeli journalist Yossi Melman reported, by the leaking to the media of a largely unreported three-year Israeli naval campaign that targeted Iranian tankers in a bid to stop the flow of oil to Syria. Israel asserts that the proceeds of the oil sales are used to fund Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia militia. “The Iranians, who were ready to swallow their pride as long as silence was maintained, couldn’t tolerate it anymore. Iran opened its own naval offensive targeting merchant boats with remote links to Israel,” Mr Melman wrote.[26]

Saudi and Emirati journalists and pundits implicitly invoked the Carter Doctrine by arguing that the escalation was a global, not just a Gulf, problem. Journalist Yahya Al-Talidi asserted that “safe passage is the responsibility of all countries…that benefit from navigation through these lanes and not limited to Saudi Arabia.”[27] Calling for US military action against Iran, Adwan Al-Ahmari, editor-in-chief of Independent Arabia, insisted that the US refused to accept that “terrorists cannot be counselled”. He was referring to negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).[28]

The calls for US action were rooted in an evolution of the perceived meaning of the doctrine that, according to Gulf scholar and former US Defense Department and White House official David B. Des Roches, neither conforms with its text or intent, nor was anything more than a statement made by Mr Carter during his 1980 State of the Union address. Referring to the Iranian occupation of the US embassy in Iran and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Mr Carter asserted that “this situation…demands collective efforts to meet this new threat to security in the Persian Gulf and in Southwest Asia.” He went on to declare that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”[29]

Speaking at a Middle East Institute–NUS webinar, Colonel Des Roches noted that “over time, the Carter Doctrine has accreted…to be something more than just a presidential utterance into a pillar of US national security… this idea that it was on a par with, say, Article 5 of the NATO treaty, is mistaken.” Article 5 defines an attack on one member of NATO as an assault on all members, and obliges treaty members to defend their aggrieved associate. Col Des Roches went on to argue that Mr Carter’s statement referred to outside forces like the Soviet Union seeking to gain control of the Gulf, not regional threats emanating, for example, from Iran, or domestic pressures. “The Carter Doctrine is not what we think it is…. and American policy is still consistent with the Carter Doctrine,” he said.[30]

Rethinking Assumptions

While no doubt accurate, Col Des Roches’ back to basics analysis was at odds with the rethink of assumptions underlying US Middle East policy advocated in recent publications by the Quincy Institute as well as prominent scholar Danny Postel. The publications challenged perceptions of Iran that constitute a key pillar of the approach of both the US and its allies.

The Institute’s most recent report, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ argued that instability in the Middle East was the product of interventions in the Middle East by multiple regional players, not just Iran.[31] It pointed to a significant number of instances in the last decade in which US allies Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel projected military power beyond their borders. Their interventions were driven as much by competition for regional influence among US allies as they were by rivalry with Iran.

“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed Iran in recent years,” the report said.

The ability to project power militarily is reflected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) ranking of Middle Eastern countries’ military expenditure. SIPRI ranked Iran as having the fifth-largest budget in 2020 at US$15.8 billion, behind Saudi Arabia at US$57.5 billion, the UAE’s US$29 billion, Israel’s US$21.7 billion, and Turkey ‘s US$17.7 billion.[32]

Hussein Ibish, a widely respected scholar at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, ridiculed the Quincy report as “the Middle East studies version of climate change denial or anti-vaccine ravings, oblivious to the obvious facts in favour of a politically convenient but patently absurd conclusion.” While acknowledging that there were multiple regional interventionalist powers that at times employed similar tactics, he argued that Iran was in a class of its own.[33]

A recent analysis by the Washington Institute concluded that United States’ efforts to deter Iran by projecting overwhelming military force had produced mixed results. “Experience shows that it is not so much the size or capability of forward-deployed forces that deters, but rather, the credibility of US deterrent threats,” said analysts Michael Eisenstadt and Henry Mihm.

In a nod to a more nuanced approach, they suggested that the US may have greater success in shaping Iranian behaviour if it deployed a smaller force and bolstered its non-military deterrence.

“Responding more consistently to challenges would demonstrate US commitment and resolve, while acting more unpredictably would complicate Iran’s efforts to manage risk and might cause it to act with more caution,” they said.[34]

Friends Versus Enemies

By implication, the Quincy report tackles the US’ frequent identification of one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as the enemy rather than a threat to regional security. “We remain a ‘friends versus enemies’ society, which is perhaps the most important reason that we have never done balance of power well,” said former State Department official and ex-US ambassador to NATO Robert E. Hunter.[35]

Viewed through the friends versus enemy lens, Iran is the latter and Israel America’s closest friend. “The US establishment—has been brought up to regard Israel as virtually a part of the United States, or at least very closely identified with it in terms of culture, society, and values. It’s a bit like the way the British used to see Australia, or the Russians saw Serbia. The result has been that the enemies and critics of Israel are seen automatically as enemies of the United States,” said Anatol Lieven, a Quincy Institute scholar who focuses on Russia, Europe, and South Asia.[36]

Unwittingly, Mr. Biden may initiate a revision of perceptions of Israel by withdrawing from Afghanistan. The withdrawal leaves Israel as the last Western country occupying foreign lands. “Suddenly, in one fell swoop, Biden is stating that an occupation can only have concrete, security-related aims and when they’re achieved, it needs to end… In the process, he has also pulled the rug out from under the justifications that Israel has created over many years for continuing to maintain the occupation… today, Biden is talking about the Afghans. Tomorrow, he’ll be saying the same things about the Palestinians” said Israeli journalist and analyst Zvi Bar’el.[37]

Prof Lieven draws three lessons from the last two decades of US policy that were shaped by the 9/11 attacks and reinforced Washington’s inclination to think of friends and enemies in black and white terms. “The first is not to become so obsessed with the enemy of the particular moment that this drowns out other important interests. Second, the United States should be careful not to allow a belief in the absolute evil of the enemy to justify its own evil actions and support for evil regimes. Third, it is absolutely essential not to lump a range of very different countries and forces in the world into one allegedly homogenous enemy camp,” he said. He identified the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even though it had nothing to do with 9/11, as an example of the pitfalls of US inclinations.

In other words, he was arguing that the problem with the “friends versus enemies” approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. That was evident in conservative criticism of Mr Biden’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan that was rooted in a perception of the Taliban as immutable.

The criticism failed to take into account the fact that the current threat of attacks on US soil emanates from the Islamic State rather than Al Qaida and that the Taliban and the Islamic State are at odds with each other.[38]

“Our enemies are ideologically opposed to Western civilization and will gladly stage another 9/11 if thet have the opportunity and means. They are at war with us whether or not we are at war with them,” said Reoublican House of Representatives member Dan Crenshaw.[39]

The Obama administration’s negotiation of the JCPOA demonstrated that adopting a different lens is a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining support from more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party[40] and among evangelicals.[41]

A recent Washington Institute for Near East Policy poll in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain suggested that public opinion did not overwhelmingly favour interventionist policies to counter Iran. The poll showed that 60 per cent of the public favoured a revival of the JCPOA, for instance.

A whopping 75 per cent of those polled agreed with the proposition that “right now, internal political and economic reform is more important for our country than any foreign policy issue, so we should stay out of any wars outside our borders.” Only a quarter of those surveyed suggested that US policy should focus on containing Iran.[42]

More critical attitudes towards US Middle East policy among Democratic progressives and Evangelicals are not limited to perceptions of Iran. They also potentially affect long-standing US support for Israel. The party’s progressives have called for probes into alleged Israeli violations of US law, accused Israel of apartheid and violations of basic human rights, and attempted to block the sale of precision-guided missiles to it, prompting attacks on members of Congress Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib.

The split in the American Jewish community was highlighted when 45 prominent liberal and left-wing rabbis and Jewish activists and intellectuals took Israel’s main lobby in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPC), to task in an open letter. It denounced AIPAC for inspiring “bigotry, harassment and violence” by accusing the members of Congress of “inciting hate by demonisng Israel and spreading vicious, dangerous lies about our democratic ally”.[43]

The letter reflects broader trends that are borne out by recent surveys. The Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats, found that 34 per cent of American Jewish voters agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States,” while 25 per cent approved the notion that “Israel is an apartheid state” and 22 per cent asserted that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” The poll found that 9 per cent of voters agreed with the statement “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist”. Among voters under 40, that proportion was 20 per cent.[44]

Pitfalls of US Policy

The pitfalls of US policy in the Middle East are exacerbated by structural problems associated with policy inputs, particularly US embassy cables in various capitals that report on the situation on the ground, which land ultimately in an upper echelon of the State Department that is populated by political appointees, rather than career diplomats.

Too often, cables are ignored by the higher echelons if they portray an on-the-ground picture that is at odds with the prism of a political appointee and/or the administration. That was evident in realms of cables captured and published by Iranian militants who occupied the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held American diplomats hostage for 444 days.[45]

Similarly, Libya, a one-time international pariah in the view of the West, regained favour in the first decade of the 21st century as an ally in the war on terrorism and bulwark against illegal migration to Europe. The US reverted, however, to its earlier description of Muammar Qaddafi as a “madman” when he bloodily suppressed a 2011 popular uprising with an assault on Benghazi, Libya’s opposition-controlled second-largest city.

Diplomacy scholar Pablo de Orellana noted that US diplomats in Libya reported at the time on “vital nuances and warnings about the complex composition of the ‘peaceful pro-democracy protesters’ and how best to ‘mitigate the potential for Islamic extremists and Al Qaida to exploit the transition’. These reports were rarely pursued by the Secretary of State and were de-prioritised across US diplomatic knowledge production. Instead, “Secretary Hilary Clinton relied on a small circle of informal advisers, who insisted on a simpler view featuring freedom-loving democrats rebelling against a tyrant”.[46]

By the same token, US perceptions of Iran resulting as much from perception and politics as from reality on the ground and the ambitions of rival forces in the Islamic Republic have shaped attitudes towards the nuclear accord in both countries.

“The real question is why powerful political forces in the US opposed the JCPOA from the start. The answer is that these forces do not want the US to normalise relations with Iran. What they want is that pressure on Iran causes the exacerbation of the country’s many problems, including its ethnic fault lines, and eventually leads to its disintegration… Meanwhile, Iran’s hardliners pay no attention to the country’s national as opposed to revolutionary objectives and, by continuing to insist on untenable positions, they contribute to Iran’s drift towards growing internal discord and, potentially, disintegration,” said the Iranian scholar and former diplomat Shireen Hunter.[47]

Revolutionary vs Counter-revolutionary

Against that background, Middle East scholar Danny Postel sought in the summer of 2021  to shake Washington groupthink of Iran as a destabilising, revolutionary force by portraying it in a contrarian paper as a counter-revolutionary, status quo force. His paper saw daylight as the US sought to manage a collapse of the state in Lebanon as well as threats of popular unrest in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East.

It argued that “the view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time, yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: Not one of a revolutionary, but rather of a counter-revolutionary force.”

Mr Postel noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq had responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified Iran-aligned factions with the widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down. The pro-Iranian groups attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to expressions of popular will.

“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official, speaking about Lebanon, probably could not have said it better.[48]

Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt was no less counter-revolutionary, and illustrated the lengths to which Iran was willing to go to protect its interests.

“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr Postel concluded.

“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” he added.

Counter-terrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr Postel in a paper published at about the same time, which asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.[49]

“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important is the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Dr Levitt said.

His analysis suggested that the cyber activities of Iran and its proxies were offensive rather than defensive – a conclusion apparently questioned by some Israeli analysts. Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper quoted a maritime source with ties to the Jewish state’s defence sector as saying that recently leaked documents describing the shadow maritime and cyber battle between Iran and Israel as potentially “more defensive research than an offensive attack plan”.[50]

The documents, originating from a secret intelligence unit within the IRGC, argued that “Iran must become among the world’s most powerful in the area of cyber.” They also described incidents at sea involving Israel and Iran.[51]

One document, which detailed ways of attacking or sabotaging a vessel at sea, included a diagram that “showed how commands could be sent remotely to a ship from a control centre on land via a satellite link”. It suggested that the commands could be used to target water pumps and be used “to bring water into the tanks through centrifuges (and)… could result in the sinking of the ship”.

It argued further that “any kind of disruptive influence can cause disorder within these systems and can cause significant and irreparable damage to the vessel”.

Two other documents revealed that the Iranian intelligence unit had researched “computer-based systems that control lighting, ventilation, heating, security alarms and other functions” and electrical equipment produced for ships by a German company with potential “vulnerabilities in what is called a programmable logic controller, or PLC – a computer control system”.

“I don’t think they have such capabilities and if they do, we have yet to see them used against Israeli ships,” the maritime source said.[52]

America’s National Interest

At the core of the divergence between the analysis of Mr Postel and the Quincy Institute, on the one hand, and Dr Levitt and other proponents of a continued significant US military presence in the Middle East, on the other, lies a debate about what constitutes America’s interest in the region. Political scientist Eugene Gholz argued in an earlier paper published by the Quincy Institute that US military objectives in the region should be limited to preventing the establishment of a regional hegemon and protecting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.[53]

Countering this definition, former US Defense Department official William F. Wechsler cautioned in a paper published by the Atlantic Council against narrow definitions that underestimated the threat posed by Iran and failed to include US values-based interests.[54] Mr Wechsler’s paper did not mention Dr Gholz or the Quincy Institute by name. Instead, it was framed as a response to a commentary[55] published by the Council on the same day as Mr Wechsler’s paper, in which two of his colleagues argued in favour of a US military drawdown in the Middle East along lines similar to Dr Gholz’s.

Mr Wechsler insisted that US interests included “promoting democratic transitions, advancing human rights, combating corruption, providing humanitarian relief, and ending local military conflicts. These omissions are notable, as it would strain credulity to assert that the United States would be well-positioned to influence these interests after being seen as withdrawing from the region.” Mr Wechsler mirrored Dr Deudney and Prof Ikenberry’s criticism that the Quincy approach would “diminish the prospects for liberal democracy and human rights globally”.[56]

At the same time, Mr Wechsler’s rejection of the notion of a US withdrawal from the Middle East appeared to acknowledge that promotion of US values-based interests has more often than not served to pressure countries like Iran, which are defined by Washington as hostile, rather than as a yardstick that applies to all. “Rather than seek a near-total withdrawal from the region, which would once again upend the status quo, the United States should seek to return to the traditional US role of protecting and restoring that status quo while pushing for incremental improvements in regional security, prosperity, and general welfare,” he cautioned.

The irony is that the facts on the ground suggest that US policy is to fortify rather than diminish America’s presence in the Middle East. “When the US chose to prioritise its limited defence assets towards the Indo-Pacific…the Gulf actually increased in importance. It was and remains one of the few areas where the US has established bases to project power into the Indian Ocean… in recent years, the US returned combat troops to Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2003. As the Afghan withdrawal winds down and the Biden administration talks about ‘over the horizon’ support, ask yourself what bases exist ‘over the horizon,” said a prominent Gulf scholar.[57]

Former Trump national security and intelligence take the analysis of the Gulf scholar and Mr Wechsler a step further, arguing that rather than reviewing US foreign policy wholesale, the Biden administration will have to double down on a security-driven Indo-Pacific approach if it wants to repair the damage done by the Afghanistan withdrawal. Robert C. O’Brien, the former president’s national security advisor, and John Ratcliffe, his former national intelligence director, suggested as the Afghanistan debacle unfolded that the Biden administration should expedite arms sales to Taiwan, redeploy to the Indo-Pacific the troops withdrawn, revive the US naval base on American Samoa, and forward base in Australia Washington’s only heavy icebreaker to shorten the distance it travels to Antarctica each year.[58]

Beyond defining objectives of US policy, the truth in the differences between Mr Postel and the Quincy Institute and Dr Levitt’s and Mr Wechsler’s analysis may lie in the middle. Their differences, for example, on the ultimate purpose of Iran’s employment of proxies appear to constitute two sides of the same coin. Supporting proxies representing marginalised or disgruntled communities that have a popular base and are opposed to the status quo in countries where the state is weak or fragile is a pillar of Iranian foreign and defence policy. So is the opposite: Supporting the status quo in those countries where Iranian proxies have emerged as powerful forces, like Lebanon and Iraq, even if the popular mood has turned against them.[59]

That conclusion adds weight to Mr Postel’s analysis that tactics employed by Iran are not unique, but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.

Compartmentalisation Vs a Holistic Approach

By implication, the Quincy Institute study further raises the question of whether compartmentalising security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies, rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.

That question is so far not being debated, nor is there an indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to it. That could change if either the Biden administration or the new Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, opts to make concessions needed to conclude a deal, or if both sides accept the talks’ failure and choose a Plan B that prevents the situation from spinning out of control. The International Crisis Group suggested in a report released as Mr Raisi assumed office that “a Plan B would be to agree to an interim arrangement that would freeze the crisis. Both sides, having learned from the JCPOA experience, could then build a stronger and more durable nuclear accord in parallel with talks aimed at de-escalating tensions in the region”.[60]

Such a plan would, however, leave the question raised by the Quincy report unanswered, particularly given that agreement on a return to the JCPOA appears to be elusive because of deep-seated distrust on the part of both sides. This distrust, shared by US allies, prompted Washington to demand that a revival of the accord be linked to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles and proxies, without including similar programmes and policies by US regional allies. By the same token, the talks stalled because of Iranian fears that the US remains fundamentally committed to regime change in Tehran, and, given Mr Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear accord, cannot be trusted to fulfil its contractual obligations.

Mr Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, reflected Iranian fears and distrust when he warned in his last interview as president that legislation passed in December by the Iranian parliament, the basis for Mr Raisi’s expected approach to negotiations, threatened to prevent a deal. The law compels the government to adopt a series of escalatory nuclear-related steps in the absence of a reversal of the US withdrawal from the agreement. It also makes obligatory the lifting of all US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, including those related to Iran’s human rights record, alleged support for terrorism, and ballistic missile programme.[61]

Similarly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on the eve of Mr Raisi’s swearing-in that “it became obvious that trusting the West does not work. They won’t help. They will try to hit us everywhere they can, and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… on paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions… to say in the future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles”.[62]

Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office, Mr Raisi would seek to turn the tables on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement. To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting; guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and its overseas accounts, are removed.[63]

Iran’s anticipated harder line in negotiations was echoed in a warning by US officials that the new president would not get Iran a better deal, and that there could be a point in the near future at which it would no longer be worth returning to the 2015 deal because Iran’s nuclear programme would have advanced to the point where the limitations under the 2015 pact would not produce the intended minimum one year “breakout time” to get enough enriched uranium for a bomb.[64]

On a recent visit to the Middle East, Mr Blinken insisted that the US was “committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA cannot be fully recovered by a return to it if Iran continues the activities that it has undertaken concerning its nuclear programme. We have clearly demonstrated our good faith and desire to return to mutual compliance with the nuclear agreement…the ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance.”[65]

Another US official cautioned that US-Iranian relations could involve a “Back to the Future” scenario, a reference to a movie in which a 17-year-old high school student is sent 30 years into the past. “Ultimately, it is going to look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past — sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come round to the idea that they will not wait us out,” the official said.[66]

Time May be Running Out

The US’ sanctions policy is one reason for the stalemate in JCPOA talks. “The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj.[67]

The Biden administration appeared to be heeding Mr Batmanghelidj’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures. Those measures would involve sanctions aimed at hampering Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts of the weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.[68]

A sense that time may be running out and the conviction that pressure would ultimately force Iran’s hand informed a proposal by Mr Ross, the former US Middle East peace negotiator, on how to respond to the Islamic Republic’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles programme and support of armed proxies as well as Mr Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr Ross suggested that the US sells the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster bomb capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities, to Israel. He argued that the sale would constitute “the best inducement for Iran to negotiate a ‘longer and stronger’ deal”.[69]

Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorise the sale[70] as a way to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge as the US moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets. The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale after putting it on hold for review when Mr Biden took office In January.[71]

Iran’s Future

The Quincy Institute and Mr Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime. Despite the resilience demonstrated by Iran over the decades, the country’s detractors in the US, as well as American allies in the Middle East, cling to the notion that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse, and that continued pressure and sanctions will push it over the edge.

Several Iranian Americans sponsored by the Washington-based Institute for Voices of Liberty (iVOL) visited Israel in July 2021 in a manifestation of that hope, as part of the organisation’s effort “to promote democracy, human rights, and freedom in Iran after the prospective collapse of the Islamist regime”. [72] Erfan Fard, an activist and independent counter-terrorism scholar, suggested that the visit “could lay the basis for a future relationship between Israel and Iran after the collapse of the ayatollahs’ dictatorship”.[73]

The hope was bolstered by protests in the Iranian province of Khuzestan that were sparked by water shortages.[74] “Khamenei is on fire… the mullahs’ regime is reeling,” headlined Okaz, a Saudi newspaper that hews close to government thinking.[75]

However, widely-respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the regime could last at least another generation.[76] He drew a comparison with the Soviet Union: “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance-driven Russia nationalism — led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin.”

“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction on Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an ageing cleric – like an Ayatollah Khamenei or an Ebrahim Raisi – and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shia nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism – or Persian nationalism,” he added.

The prediction is shared by a growing number of Iran scholars. “A faction of right-wing leaders has the opportunity to reshape Iran’s politics and society in ways that will expand the IRGC’s control over the country’s economy, further diminish political freedoms, and yet display limited tolerance on religious and social issues. It will champion Iranian nationalism to widen its popular base domestically, while relying on Shia and anti-American ideologies to project power regionally,” said international affairs analyst Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar.[77]

In that vein, Mr Raisi’s election campaign, as well as debates on social media, may be harbingers of a more nationalist, less religious, policy approach that is designed to create greater popular support for transition from Shia nationalism. The new president has promised to fight domestic violence and pledged to discourage the much-despised morality police from harassing ordinary people by urging them to go after economic and bureaucratic corruption instead.

Other hardliners have struck a similar tone. Conservative activist Masoud Dehnamaki, known for his denunciation of reformists as “un-Islamic”, declared in a recent debate on the Clubhouse chat app that compulsory veiling was no longer a serious concern for the regime.[78]

Opportunity Presents Itself

An Iranian nationalist regime could potentially contribute to regional stability. It would likely see groups like Hezbollah, militias in Iraq, and the Houthi as liabilities rather than assets. That would reduce the threat of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries.

Already, differences have emerged between Iran and some of its proxies in Iraq, as well as among the militias themselves. At the same time, anti-Iranian public sentiment in Iraq is on the rise and Tehran’s ability to influence Baghdad is diminishing.

This was evident during Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani’s recent visit to Baghdad. He encountered unusual blowback when he asked pro-Iranian Iraqi militia leaders to refrain from attacking US targets until the nuclear talks were concluded. One militia commander insisted that they could not do so as long as the killing in January 2020 of Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi militia commander, remained unavenged.[79]

An official of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the militia led by the late Al-Muhandis, warned in response to the announcement of a US combat troop withdrawal that an American failure to keep its promise would mean confrontation. “We may have a decision that is effectively independent of Iran, and this complicates things,” the official said.[80]

The differences between Iran and some militia leaders speak to a more fundamental divergence that could open the door to the kind of relationship with Iran that the US is seeking with China: Strategic competition, coupled with cooperation in areas where the two countries’ interests converge. That is if the US does not repeat its mistake of two decades ago, when it failed to exploit opportunities created by Iranian help in bringing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to office in the wake of the US invasion, and Syrian cooperation with the US war on terror in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

A similar opportunity may be presenting itself in Iraq now. Iraqi Shia leaders, including Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s most respected cleric, powerful nationalist political and religious leader Moqtada al-Sadr, and Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Iran-backed Badr Organization, have embraced the fact that the US will withdraw combat troops from Iraq by the end of this year but keep a sizeable force in the county to train their Iraqi counterparts, share intelligence, and provide other support.[81] Mr Al-Amiri’s support, in particular, appears to signal that Iran does not reject a continued US training and advisory role.

The divergence between Iran and some of the Iraqi groups fleshes out the notion of Middle East scholar Thomas Juneau that the widely-held belief in the US that the concept of an Iranian proxy means absolute control and subservience to the interests of the Islamic Republic may be inaccurate. Dr Juneau draws his conclusion from studying the relationship between Iran and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The notion that “the Houthis are Iran’s proxy, with the bigger power using the smaller actor to advance its own purposes… is, at best, only part of the story: The Houthis use their ties with Iran to advance their own interests as much as the reverse,” he said.[82]

The shades of grey in the analysis of facts on the ground in Iraq and Yemen, coupled with Mr Sadjadpour’s prognosis, the Quincy Institute reports, and Mr Postel’s paper, suggest that the Biden administration has an opportunity to gradually reframe Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community, though this would be a gradual process, rather than an overnight change.

Potential Entry Points

The US withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq are potential entry points. So are the troubled nuclear talks.

A potential breakdown in the talks is already prompting calls for a Plan B. In the same vein,

Mr Ross, the former Middle East peace negotiator, and hardliners like Trump-era official Elliott Abrams are calling for a return to the policy of maximum pressure by invoking a snapback of United Nations sanctions that were lifted as part of the original accord.[83]

The policy failed then, and there is little reason to think that it would produce results now, which means that the time for a fundamental policy rethink is ripe, although US domestic politics is likely to foreclose that option. Plan B could involve the gradual exploitation of cracks, with the risk that from Iran’s perspective, it would be too little too late.

One potential crack that the Biden administration could spin as a more balanced approach is giving human rights greater weightage when it comes to US arms sales.[84] The policy under consideration by the administration could affect Iran’s foremost rivals, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two primary clients of the US defence industry. Similarly, Egypt could constitute an imminent test of the shift, with Secretary of State Blinken about to decide whether to withhold US$300 million from a US$1.3 billion annual military aid package. Congress has linked disbursement of the US$300 million to the release of political prisoners and respecting freedom of the press – conditions few would assert that Egypt has met.[85]

The problem from Iran’s perspective is that the shift is likely to affect those arms and systems that would be used domestically in violation of human rights by police and paramilitary forces rather than the big-ticket, cutting-edge weapons that concern Iran the most. The shift, moreover, would constitute a double-edged sword for Iran. On the one hand, it signals US willingness to be more critical of its regional allies. On the other, this increases pressure on the Islamic Republic, whose human rights record is equally tarnished.

By the same token, concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the US withdrawals suggests that stabilising the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed, if not resolved, creates grounds for China, Russia, and the US to cooperate on what should be a common interest: Securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade. Iran, like China and Russia, is bracing itself for worst-case scenarios in the wake of the Taliban takeover, which enhances the potential for some form of cooperation.

Changes in the assumptions underlying US Middle East policy would facilitate the search for a more inclusive security architecture and potentially reduce the risk of conflicts spinning out of control and/or the US being sucked into escalating tensions, such as the most recent shipping incidents. Emerging alliances between regional players could also allow US allies to take greater responsibility and produce interesting results.

One such emerging relationship, dubbed the Indo-Abrahamic bloc by analyst Mohammed Soliman, would group India, the UAE and Israel, and could attract Saudi Arabia and others. Saudi Arabia held its first-ever naval exercise with India in mid-August.[86] The burgeoning Indo-Abrahamic relationship raises the question of how it would deal with Iran, given that India is the main backer of the Iranian Arabian Sea port of Chabahar, 70 km down the coast from the Chinese-supported Pakistan port of Gwadar.

“The size, power, and influence of the Indo-Abrahamic states — India, Israel, and the UAE — have the potential to transform the region’s geopolitics and geoeconomics,” Mr Soliman said.[87]

Conclusion

Ironically, reality in the Middle East is less likely to drive a fundamental change of US policy than domestic politics. That makes debate about the policy more important, even if its impact will not be immediate. Policy change is likely to be a gradual process resulting from the evolution of public opinion in key US domestic constituencies, including the Democratic Party and the evangelical and Jewish communities. The most recent debate reflected in a flurry of studies, reports, and analysis which suggests that, ever so slowly, the guardrails of the discussion are shifting. The earlier US allies hear which way the wind is blowing, the better they will be able to accommodate inevitable change.

End Notes

[1] Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, About QI, https://quincyinst.org/about/

[2] Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, “Misplaced Restraint: The Quincy Coalition Versus Liberal Internationalism”, Survival, Vol 63:4, 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00396338.2021.1956187

[3] Ibid. Deudney and Ikenberry

[4] George W. Bush, Decision Points, New York: Crown, 2010, Kindle edition

[5] Juan Cole, “The Biden Doctrine and Afghanistan: Lean Counter-Terrorism and the end of Bloated Nation-Building”, Informed Comment, 17 August 2021, https://www.juancole.com/2021/08/doctrine-afghanistan-terrorism.html

[6] The White House, Remarks by President Biden on Afghanistan, 16 August 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/08/16/remarks-by-president-biden-on-afghanistan/

[7] Ben Rhodes, The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, New York: Random House, Kindle edition

[8] Email to the author, 4 August 2021

[9] Bilal Y. Saab, “Enabling US Security Cooperation”, Survival, Vol. 63:4, July 2021, p. 89-99

[10] Kenneth M. Pollack and Dennis Ross, “Biden needs a Middle East strategy to avoid new crises”, The Hill, 10 August 2021, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/567095-biden-needs-a-middle-east-strategy-to-avoid-new-crises

[11] Vivian Salama, Nancy A. Youssef and Gordon Lubold, “Speed of Taliban Advance Surprises Biden Administration, Dismays U.S. Allies”, The Wall Street Journal, 11 August 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/speed-of-taliban-advance-surprises-biden-administration-dismays-u-s-allies-11628708393

[12] Andrew Bahcevic, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in the World Transformed, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021, p. 3

[13] C. Christine Fair, “Pakistan and the United States Have Betrayed the Afghan People”, Foreign Policy, 16 August2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/16/pakistan-united-states-afghanistan-taliban/

[14] Jack Detsch, “Departure of Private Contractors Was a Turning Point in Afghan Military’s Collapse”, Foreign Policy, 16 August 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/16/afghanistan-military-collapse-private-contractors/

[15] Jon Alterman, “U.S. Restraint in the Middle East”, Center for Strategic and International Affairs, 10 August 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/us-restraint-middle-east

[16] Vision 2030, https://www.vision2030.gov.sa/

[17] Hani K. Findakly and Kevin A. Findakly, “Whither the Arabs: The End of the Welfare State and the Start of a Journey into the Unknown”, Atlantic Council, August 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Whither-the-Arabs.pdf

[18] William J. Burns and Jake Sullivan,” We Led Successful Negotiations With Iran. Trump’s Approach Isn’t Working”, The Atlantic, 16 May 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/05/trumps-iran-strategy-all-coercion-no-diplomacy/589558/

[19] William J. Burns, “An End to Magical Thinking in the Middle East”, The Atlantic , 8 December 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/12/end-magical-thinking-middle-east/602953/

[20] Eli Lake,” Will Biden Invite Afghanistan to His Democracy Summit?”, Bloomberg, 13 August 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-08-12/afghanistan-withdrawal-undermines-biden-s-commitment-to-democracy?sref=3XwG50X1

[21] Steven Erlanger, “Afghanistan’s Unraveling May Strike Another Blow to U.S”, The New York Times, 13 August 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/13/world/europe/afghanistan-eu-us-credibility.html

[22] Peter Beaumont and agencies, “Suspected tanker hijacking off UAE coast is over, says British military”, The Guardian, 4 August 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/aug/03/extreme-caution-urged-in-gulf-of-oman-after-non-piracy-incident

[23] Humeyra Pamuk, “Exclusive: U.S. probe of Saudi oil attack shows it came from north – report”, Reuters, 20 Decmber 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-aramco-attacks-iran-exclusive/exclusive-u-s-probe-of-saudi-oil-attack-shows-it-came-from-north-report-idUSKBN1YN299

[24] Reuters, “U.S. sees ‘collective response’ to ship attack blamed on Iran”, 3 August 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/us-confident-iran-carried-out-attack-tanker-secretary-blinken-2021-08-02/

[25] Rina Bassit, “Gantz says Israel ready for military action against Iran, if necessary”, Al-Monitor, 6 August 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/08/gantz-says-israel-ready-military-action-against-iran-if-necessary

[26] Yossi Melman, “Deadly attack on Israeli-owned ship raises spectre of open confrontation with Iran”, Middle East Eye, 3 August 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iran-israel-ship-attack-huge-miscalculation

[27] Yahya Al-Talidi, Twitter, 31 July 2021, https://twitter.com/talidi11/status/1421143887234621440

[28] Adwan Al-Ahmari, Twitter, 2 August 2021, https://twitter.com/Adhwan/status/1422148252745469953

[29] Office of the Historian, “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1977-1980”, Volume XVIII, Middle East Region, Arabian Peninsula, US Department of State, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v18/d45

[30] NUS Middle East Institute, Between Co-operation & Confrontation: Has the US Renounced the Carter Doctrine?, YouTube, 8 August 2021,

[31] Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, “No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020”, Quincy Paper No.8, 19 July 2021, https://quincyinst.org/report/no-clean-hands-the-interventions-of-middle-eastern-powers/

[32] Annelle Sheline, Twitter, 6 August 2021, https://twitter.com/AnnelleSheline/status/1423365810463154176

[33] Email exchange with the author, 13 August 2021

[34] Michael Eisenstadt and Henry Mihm, “Do Aircraft Carriers Deter Iran? The Washington Institute for Near East Policy”, 6 August 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/do-aircraft-carriers-deter-iran#:~:text=Assurance%20and%20contingency%20response.,calculus%20and%20provide%20other%20benefits.

[35] Email to the author, 2 August 2021, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, 19 July 2021, https://quincyinst.org/report/no-clean-hands-the-interventions-of-middle-eastern-powers

[36] Michael Young, “America Often Wrong”, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, 2 August 2021, https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/85059

[37] Zvi Bar’el, “Biden Pulls the Rug Out From Under Israel’s Justifications for Its Occupation”, Haaretz, 19 August 2021, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.HIGHLIGHT-biden-pulls-the-rug-out-from-under-israel-s-justifications-for-its-occupation-1.10130377

[38] James M. Dorsey, “Taliban and Al Qaida: Putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop?”, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 19 August 2021, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2021/08/taliban-and-al-qaeda-putting-fox-in.html

[39] Dan Crenshaw, The ‘Endless Wars’ Fallacy, The Wall Street Journal, 17 August 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/endless-wars-neocon-biden-afghanistan-withdrawal-kabul-taliban-terrorist-jihadist-11629209389

[40] Ben Samuel and Amir Tibon, “Israel’s Brutal Month With the Democratic Party – and Its Impact on Public Opinion”, Haaretz, 31 May 2021, https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium.HIGHLIGHT-israel-s-brutal-month-with-the-democratic-party-and-its-impact-on-public-opinion-1.9858442

[41] William Roberts,” Support for Israel shifts among young US evangelical Christians”, Al Jazeera, 4 June 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/4/support-for-israel-among-young-us-evangelical-christians-shifts

[42] David Pollock, “Good News from the Gulf, for a Change”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 29 July 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/good-news-gulf-change

[43] Logan Bayroff et al., “Jewish Americans Letter To AIPAC Leadership”, Scribd, August 2021, https://www.scribd.com/document/519950490/Jewish-Americans-Letter-to-AIPAC-Leadership

[44] JTA and Ron Kampeas,” Israel ‘Is an Apartheid State,’ a Quarter of U.S. Jews Say in New Poll”, Haaretz, 13 July 2021, https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/a-quarter-of-u-s-jews-agree-that-israel-is-an-apartheid-state-in-new-survey-1.9995986

[45] Malcolm Byrne, “Iran’s 1979 Revolution Revisited: Failures (and a Few Successes) of U.S. Intelligence and Diplomatic Reporting”, National Security Archive, 11 February 2019, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/iran/2019-02-11/irans-1979-revolution-revisited-failures-few-successes-us-intelligence-diplomatic-reporting

[46] Pablo de Orellana, “How Gaddafi went from friend to foe in US eyes”, International Affairs Blog, 2 June 2021, https://medium.com/international-affairs-blog/how-gaddafi-went-from-friend-to-foe-in-us-eyes-e09cd4373b51

[47] Email to the author, 31 July 2021

[48] Fanar Haddad, “Iraq protests: There is no going back to the status quo ante”, Middle East Eye, 6 November 2019, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/iraq-protests-there-no-going-back-status-quo-ante

[49] Matthew Levitt, “Hezbollah’s Regional Activities in Support of Iran’s Proxy Networks”, Middle East Institute, July 2021, https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2021-07/Hezbollah%E2%80%99s%20Regional%20Activities%20in%20Support%20of%20Iran%E2%80%99s%20Proxy%20Networks_0.pdf

[50] Omer Benjakob, “Leaked Iranian Intel Sheds Light on Proxy War With Israel”, Haaretz, 28 July 2021, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/leaked-iranian-intel-sheds-light-on-proxy-war-with-israel-1.10046005?utm_source=mailchimp&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=haaretz-news&utm_content=62088c5215

[51] Deborah Haynes, “Iran’s Secret Cyber Files”, Sky News, July 2021, https://news.sky.com/story/irans-secret-cyber-files-on-how-cargo-ships-and-petrol-stations-could-be-attacked-12364871

[52] Ibid. Benjakob

[53] Eugene Gholz, “Nothing Much to Do: Why America Can Bring All Troops Home From the Middle East, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft”, Quincy Institute, 24 June 2021¸ https://quincyinst.org/report/nothing-much-to-do-why-america-can-bring-all-troops-home-from-the-middle-east/

[54] William F. Wechsler, “No, the US shouldn’t withdraw from the Middle East”, Atlantic Council, 24 June 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/no-the-us-shouldnt-withdraw-from-the-middle-east/

[55] Robert A. Manning and Christopher Preble, “Reality Check #8: Rethinking US military policy in the Greater Middle East”, Atlantic Council, 24 June 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/content-series/reality-check/reality-check-8-rethinking-us-military-policy-in-the-greater-middle-east/

[56] Ibid.  Deudney and Ikenberry

[57] Email on a private mailing list, 3 August 2021

[58] Robert C. O’Brien and John Ratcliffe, “After the Debacle: Six Concrete Steps to Restore U.S. Credibility”, Foreign Policy, 18 September 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/18/afghanistan-withdrawal-biden-indo-pacific-military-china-us-allies-credibility/

[59] Thomas Juneau, “How War in Yemen Transformed the Iran-Houth Partnership”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 30 July 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1057610X.2021.1954353?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=uter20

[60] International Crisis Group, “Iran: The Riddle of Raisi”, Report no. 224, 5 August 2021, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iran/224-iran-riddle-raisi

[61] Amwaj.media, “In exit interview, Rouhani says Raisi won’t reach deal with the US”, 3 August 2021, https://amwaj.media/media-monitor/iran-s-rouhani-says-the-jcpoa-revival-isnt-possible-owing-to-the-law-passed-by-pa

[62] Euronews Persian, “Khamenei’s assessment of the outcome of the Vienna talks: The Americans did not take a single step forward” (ارزیابی خامنه‌ای از نتایج مذاکرات وین: آمریکایی‌ها یک قدم هم جلو نیامدند), 28 July 2021, https://per.euronews.com/2021/07/28/iranian-leader-assesses-results-vienna-nuclear-talks

[63] Amwaj.media, “How Raisi wants to handle the Iran nuclear deal”, 29 July 2021, https://amwaj.media/en/article/how-raisi-wants-to-handle-the-iran-nuclear-deal

[64] Barak Ravid, “4. U.S. warns Iran’s new government that it won’t get a better deal”, Axios From Tel Aviv, 29 July 2021, https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-tel-aviv?id=33&name=axios-tel-aviv

[65] Simon Lewis, “Blinken says Iran negotiating process cannot go on indefinitely”, Reuters, 29 July 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/blinken-says-negotiating-process-with-iran-cannot-go-indefinitely-2021-07-29/

[66] Laura Rozen, “Iran’s Khamenei complains US seeking follow-on talks, as US urges return to Vienna negotiations”, Diplomatic, 29 July 2021, https://diplomatic.substack.com/p/irans-khamenei-complains-us-seeking

[67] Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, Twitter, 29 July 2021, https://twitter.com/yarbatman/status/1420723038996291586

[68] Ian Talley and Benoit Faucon, “US plans sanctions against Iran’s drones and guided missiles”, The Wall Street Journal, 29 July 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-plans-sanctions-against-irans-drones-and-guided-missiles-11627556400

[69] Dennis Ross, “To Deter Iran, Give Israel a Big Bomb”, Bloomberg, 23 July 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-07-23/u-s-should-give-israel-mountain-buster-bomb-to-deter-iran-s-nuclear-program?sref=3XwG50X1

[70] Al Jazeera, “US senators push to sell bunker-busting bombs to Israel”, 29 October 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/29/us-senators-to-introduce-bill-on-sale-of-bunker-bombs-to-israel

[71] Agence France Press, “Biden to proceed with UAE F-35 sales, with rules”, France 24, 14 April 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210414-biden-to-proceed-with-uae-f-35-sales-with-rules

[72] Institute for Voices of Liberty, Mission to Israel – Delegation, 19 July 2021, https://ivol.institute/2021/07/19/ivol-mission-to-israel-delegation/

[73] Erfan Fard, “Iranian Dissidents to Visit Israel, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies”, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 26 July 2021, https://besacenter.org/iranian-dissidents-to-visit-israel/

[74] Agencies, “Iran accused of using unlawful force in water protest crackdown”, The Guardian, 23 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/23/iran-accused-of-using-unlawful-force-in-water-protest-crackdown

[75] Fahim Al-Hamid, “Khamenei is on fire… the mullahs’ regime is reeling” (خامنئي يحترق..نظام الملالي يترنّح), Okaz, 29 July 2021, https://www.okaz.com.sa/news/politics/2076929#.YQIRiB_HRWY.twitter

[76] Jon Alterman, “Iran’s Future”, Babel, 13 July 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/irans-future

[77] Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, “Iran’s War Within”, Foreign Affairs, September/October2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2021-08-05/irans-war-within-ebrahim-raisi

[78] Ibid. Tabaar

[79] Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Samya Kullab, “Keeping up attacks, some Iraq militias challenge patron Iran”, Associated Press, 9 July 2021, https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-middle-east-religion-iran-lebanon-17a5d13c97f72e1992bb6254445e32f2

[80] Mustafa Saadoon, “Exclusive: Kata’ib Hezbollah warns that US failure to withdraw ‘means confrontation,’” Amwaj.media, 28 July 2021, https://amwaj.media/article/the-mission-of-the-american-forces-in-iraq-is-not-over-will-it-return-under-the-n

[81] David Ignatius, “Biden seems to have found a sweet spot in Iraq”, The Washington Post, 3 August 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/03/bidens-careful-approach-iraq-is-built-all-thats-absent-afghanistan/

[82] Ibid. Juneau

[83] Elliott Abrams, “Biden Needs a Plan B for the Iran Talks”, National Review, 4 August 2021, https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/08/biden-needs-a-plan-b-for-the-iran-talks/

[84] Mike Stone and Patricia Zengerle, “EXCLUSIVE-Biden plans shift in arms policy to add weight to human rights concerns”, Reuters, 5 August 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/exclusive-biden-plans-shift-arms-export-policy-favor-human-rights-sources-2021-08-04/

[85] Editorial Board, “Is Biden serious about fighting for democracy? Egypt will be a decisive test”, The Washington Post, 4 August 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/04/is-biden-serious-about-fighting-democracy-egypt-will-be-decisive-test/

[86] Middle East Monitor, “Saudi Arabia and India carry out first ever joint naval exercise”, 11 August 2021, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20210811-saudi-arabia-and-india-carry-out-first-ever-joint-naval-exercise/

[87] Mohammed Soliman, “An Indo-Abrahamic alliance on the rise: How India, Israel, and the UAE are creating a new transregional order”, Middle East Institute, 28 July 2021, https://mei.edu/publications/indo-abrahamic-alliance-rise-how-india-israel-and-uae-are-creating-new-transregional

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Sino-American confrontation and the Re-binarized world

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USA China Trade War

Americans performed three very different policies on the People’s Republic: From a total negation (and the Mao-time mutual annihilation assurances), to Nixon’s sudden cohabitation. Finally, a Copernican-turn: the US spotted no real ideological differences between them and the post-Deng China. This signalled a ‘new opening’: West imagined China’s coastal areas as its own industrial suburbia. Soon after, both countries easily agreed on interdependence (in this marriage of convenience): Americans pleased their corporate (machine and tech) sector and unrestrained its greed, while Chinese in return offered a cheap labour, no environmental considerations and submissiveness in imitation. Both spiced it by nearly religious approach to trade.

However, for each of the two this was far more than economy, it was a policy – Washington read it as interdependence for transformative containment and Beijing sow it as interdependence for a (global) penetration. In the meantime, Chinese acquired more sophisticated technology, and the American Big tech sophisticated itself in digital authoritarianism – ‘technological monoculture’ met the political one.

But now with a tidal wave of Covid-19 and binary blame-game, the honeymoon is over. While the US-led west becomes disappointment, China provoked backlash instead of gaining global support and adoration. Is any new form of global centrality in sight?

(These days, many argue that our C-19 response is a planetary fiasco, whose size is yet to surface with its mounting disproportionate and enduring secondary effects, causing tremendous socio-economic, political and psychosomatic contractions and convulsions. But, worse than our response is our silence about it.)

Still to be precise, the C-19 calamity brought nothing truly new to the already overheated Sino-American relations and to the increasing binarization of world affairs: It only amplified and accelerated what was present for quite some time – a rift between alienated power centres, each on its side of Pacific, and the rest. No wonder that the work on the C-19 vaccine is more an arms race that it is a collaborative humanistics.

This text examines prehistory of that rift; and suggests possible outcomes past the current crisis. It also discusses location and locality (absence of it, too). This since,  geography is a destiny only for those who see their own history as faith.

Origins of Future

Does our history only appear overheated – as rearly monocausal, while it is essentially calmly predetermined? Is it directional or conceivable, dialectic and eclectic or cyclical, and therefore cynical? Surely, our history warns (no matter if the Past is seen as a destination or resource). Does it also provide for a hope? Hence, what is in front of us: destiny or future?[1]

Theory loves to teach us that extensive debates on what kind of economic system is most conductive to human wellbeing is what consumed most of our civilizational vertical. However, our history has a different say: It seems that the manipulation of the global political economy (and usage of fear as the currency of control) – far more than the introduction of ideologies – is the dominant and arguably more durable way that human elites usually conspired to build or break civilizations, as planned projects. Somewhere down the process, it deceived us, becoming the self-entrapment. How?

*                            *                            *                            *            

One of the biggest (nearly schizophrenic) dilemmas of liberalism, ever since David Hume and Adam Smith, was an insight into reality: Whether the world is essentially Hobbesian or Kantian. As postulated, the main task of any liberal state is to enable and maintain wealth of its nation, which of course rests upon wealthy individuals inhabiting the particular state. That imperative brought about another dilemma: if wealthy individual, the state will rob you, but in absence of it, the pauperized masses will mob you.

The invisible hand of Smith’s followers have found the satisfactory answer – sovereign debt. That ‘invention’ meant: relatively strong central government of the state. Instead of popular control through the democratic checks-&-balance mechanism, such a state should be rather heavily indebted. Debt – firstly to local merchants, than to foreigners – is a far more powerful deterrent, as it resides outside the popular check domain.

With such a mixed blessing, no empire can easily demonetize its legitimacy, and abandon its hierarchical but invisible and unconstitutional controls. This is how a debtor empire was born. A blessing or totalitarian curse? Let us briefly examine it.

The Soviet Union – much as (the pre-Deng’s) China itself – was far more of a classic continental military empire (overtly brutal; rigid, authoritative, anti-individual, apparent, secretive), while the US was more a financial-trading empire (covertly coercive; hierarchical, yet asocial, exploitive, pervasive, polarizing). On opposite sides of the globe and cognition, to each other they remained enigmatic, mysterious and incalculable: Bear of permafrost vs. Fish of the warm seas. Sparta vs. Athens. Rome vs. Phoenicia… However, common for both (as much as for China today) was a super-appetite for omnipresence. Along with the price to pay for it.

Consequently, the Soviets went bankrupt by mid 1980s – they cracked under its own weight, imperially overstretched. So did the Americans – the ‘white man burden’ fractured them already by the Vietnam war, with the Nixon shock only officializing it. However, the US imperium managed to survive and to outlive the Soviets. How?

The United States, with its financial capital (or an outfoxing illusion of it), evolved into a debtor empire through the Wall Street guaranties. Titanium-made Sputnik vs. gold mine of printed-paper… Nothing epitomizes this better than the words of the longest serving US Federal Reserve’s boss, Alan Greenspan, who famously quoted J.B. Connally to then French President Jacques Chirac: “True, the dollar is our currency, but your problem”. Hegemony vs. hegemoney.

House of Cards (Forever r>g) 

Conventional economic theory teaches us that money is a universal equivalent to all goods. Historically, currencies were a space and time-related, to say locality-dependent. However, like no currency ever before, the US dollar became – past the WWII – the universal equivalent to all other moneys of the world. According to history of currencies, the core component of the non-precious metals’ money is a so-called promissory note – intangible belief that, by any given point in future, a particular shiny paper (self-styled as money) will be smoothly exchanged for real goods.

Thus, roughly speaking, money is nothing else but a civilizational construct about imagined/projected tomorrow – that the next day (which nobody has ever seen in the history of humankind, but everybody operates with) definitely comes (i), and that this tomorrow will certainly be a better day then our yesterday or even our today (ii).

This and similar types of collective constructs (horizontal and vertical) over our social contracts hold society together as much as its economy keeps it alive and evolving. Hence, it is money that powers economy, but our blind faith in constructed (imagined) tomorrows and its alleged certainty is what empowers money.

Tellingly, the universal equivalent of all equivalents – the US dollar – follows the same pattern: Bold and widely accepted promise. For the US, it almost instantly substan-tiates extraterritorial economic projection: American can print (any sum of) money without fear of inflation. (Quantitative easing is always exported; value is kept home.)

(Empire’s currency loses its status when other nations lose confidence in ability of that imperial power to remain solvent. For the pre-modern and modern history, it happened with 5 powers – two Iberian, Dutch, France and the UK – before the US dollar took the role of world reserve currency. Interestingly, each of the empires held it for roughly a century. The US century is just about to expire, and there are already contesters, territorial and non-territorial, symmetric and asymmetric ones. On offer are tangibles and intangibles: gold, cryptocurrencies, and biotronics/nano-chemoelectricals.)

But, what does the US dollar promise when there is no gold cover attached to it ever since the time of Nixon shock of 1971?

Pentagon promises that the oceanic sea-lanes will remain opened (read: controlled by the US Navy), pathways unhindered, and that the most traded world’s commodity – oil, will be delivered. So, it is not a crude or its delivery what is a cover to the US dollar – it is a promise that oil of tomorrow will be deliverable. That is a real might of the US dollar, which in return finances Pentagon’s massive expenditures and shoulders its supremacy.

Admired and feared, Pentagon further fans our planetary belief in tomorrow’s deliverability – if we only keep our faith in dollar (and hydrocarbons’ energized economy), and so on and on in perpetuated circle of mutual reinforcements.[2]  

These two pillars of the US might from the East coast (the US Treasury/Wall Street and Pentagon) together with the two pillars of the West coast – both financed and amplified by the US dollar, and spread through the open sea-routs (Silicone Valley and Hollywood), are an essence of the US posture. Country that hosts such a dream factory, as the US does Hollywood, is easy to romanticize – though other 3 pillars are to take and to coerce.

This very nature of power explains why the Americans have missed to take the mankind into completely other direction; towards the non-confrontational, decarbonized, de-monetized/de-financialized and de-psychologized, the self-realizing and green humankind. In short, to turn history into a moral success story. They had such a chance when, past the Gorbachev’s unconditional surrender of the Soviet bloc, and the Deng’s Copernicus-shift of China, the US – unconstrained as a lonely superpower – solely dictated terms of reference; our common destiny and direction/s to our future/s.

Winner is rarely a game-changer

Sadly enough, that was not the first missed opportunity for the US to soften and delay its forthcoming, imminent multidimensional imperial retreat. The very epilogue of the WWII meant a full security guaranty for the US: Geo-economically – 54% of anything manufactured in the world was carrying the Made in USA label, and geostrategically – the US had uninterruptedly enjoyed nearly a decade of the ‘nuclear monopoly’. Up to this very day, the US scores the biggest number of N-tests conducted, the largest stockpile of nuclear weaponry, and it represents the only power ever deploying this ‘ultimate weapon’ on other nation.

To complete the irony, Americans enjoy geographic advantage like no other empire before. Save the US, as Ikenberry notes: “…every major power in the world lives in a crowded geopolitical neighborhood where shifts in power routinely provoke counterbalancing”. Look the map, at Russia or China and their packed surroundings. The US is blessed with its insular position, by neighboring oceans. All that should harbor tranquility, peace and prosperity, foresightedness.  

Why the lonely might, an empire by invitation did not evolve into empire of relaxation, a generator of harmony? Why does it hold (extra-judicially) captive more political prisoners on Cuban soil than the badmouthed Cuban regime has ever had? Why does it remain obsessed with armament for at home and abroad? Why existential anxieties for at home and security challenges for abroad? (Eg. 78% of all weaponry at disposal in the wider MENA theater is manufactured in the US, while domestically Americans – only for their civilian purpose – have 1,2 small arms pieces per capita.)

Why the fall of Berlin Wall 30 years ago marked a beginning of decades of stagnant or failing incomes in the US (and elsewhere in the OECD world) coupled with alarming inequalities. What are we talking about here; the inadequate intensity of our tireless confrontational push or about the false course of our civilizational direction? 

Indeed, no successful and enduring empire does merely rely on coercion, be it abroad or at home. The grand design of every empire in past rested on a skillful calibration between obedience and initiative – at home, and between bandwagoning and engagement – abroad. (Thus, the main battle is traditionally between the television and the refrigerator.) In XXI century, one wins when one convinces, not when one coerces. Hence, if unable to escape its inner logics and deeply rooted appeal of confrontational nostalgia, the prevailing archrival is only a winner, rarely a game-changer.

How did we miss to notice it before? Simply, economy –right after history– is the ideologically most ‘colored’ scientific discipline of all. (Our ‘mainstream’ narrative is thus full of questionable counterfactuals.)

To sum up; After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans accelerated expansion while waiting for (real or imagined) adversaries to further decline, ‘liberalize’ and bandwagon behind the US. One of the instruments was to aggressively push for a greater economic integration between regional and distant states, which – as we see now, passed the ‘End-of-History’ euphoria of 1990s – brought about (irreversible) socio-political disintegration within each of these states.

A Country or a Cause, Both or None?

Expansion is the path to security dictatum, of the post-Cold War socio-political and (hyper-liberal) economic mantra, only exacerbated the problems afflicting the Pax Americana, which acidified global stewardship; hence oceans, populations and the relations to the unbearable levels. That is why and that is how the capability of the US to maintain its order started to erode faster than the capacity of its opponents to challenge it. A classical imperial self-entrapment (by the so-called bicycle theory: keep pedalling same way or topple over).

Clearly, the US post-Cold War preponderance is now challenged in virtually every domain: America can no longer operate unrestrained in the traditional spheres of land, sea and air, not in newer ones like the (near and deeper) outer space and cyberspace. The repeated failure to notice and recalibrate such an imperial (over-)emasculation and consequent retreat brought the painful hangovers to Washington, the most noticeably, by the last two presidential elections.[3]

Inability to manage the rising costs of sustaining the imperial order only increased the domestic popular revolt and political pressure to abandon its ‘mission’ altogether. In that light the recent Saigon II – withdrawal from Afghanistan, too. The pullout was not a miscalculation or ill-made move but a long overdue shift to realism in American foreign policy.[4] Perfectly hitting the target to miss everything else …

In short, past the Soviet collapse Americans intervened too much abroad, regulated too little at home, and delivered less than ever – both at home and abroad.  Such model attracts none.[5] No wonder that today all around the globe many do question if the States would be appealing ever again. Domestically, growing number of people perceive foreign policy mostly as an expensive destruction; divinized trade and immigration as destroyers of jobs and communities. Its political system is unable to decouple and deconcentrate wealth and power which suffocates the very social fabrics.[6]

Hence, Americans are not fixing the world anymore. They are only managing its decline. Look at their footprint in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Georgia, Libya, Syria, Ukraine or Yemen (GCC, Israel, Poland, Baltics, Taiwan soon too) – to mention but a few. Violence as a source of social cohesion is dying out. This explains why Americans nowadays nearly obsessively turn to promise of technology. Still, what the US plans to do becomes overshadowed by what others are already doing.

*                    *                            *                            *                           

When the Soviets lost their own indigenous ideological matrix and maverick confrontational stance,[7]  and when the US dominated West missed to triumph although winning the Cold War, how to expect from the imitator to score the lasting moral or even a temporary economic victory?

Dislike the relationship with the Soviets Union which was on one clear confrontational acceptance line from a start until its very last day, Americans performed three very different policies on the People’s Republic: From a total negation (and the Mao-time mutual annihilation assurances) to Nixon’s sudden cohabitation.[8]

American strategy to westernize [xihva] and split up [fenhva] China failed short there, but worked well for Yugoslavia and Soviet Union – weakening and delegitimizing central government by antagonizing nationalities, and demonizing party and army. Hence, a Copernican-turn: While offshore balancing Asian continent, the US ‘spotted’ no real ideological differences between them and the post-Deng China.

This signalled a ‘new opening’ – China’s coastal areas to become West’s industrial suburbia. Soon after, both countries easily agreed on interdependence:[9]  Americans pleased their corporate (machine and tech) sector and unrestrained its greed, while Chinese in return offered a cheap labour, no environmental considerations and submissiveness in imitation. However, for both it was far more than economy lubricated by sanctified free trade, it was a policy – Washington read it as interdependence for transformative containment and Beijing sow it as interdependence for (global) penetration. American were left in a growing illusion that the Sino growth is on terms defined by them, and Chinese – on their side – grew confident that these terms of economic growth are only accepted by them.

The so-called Financial crisis 2008/09 (or better to say the peak time of Casino economy) undermined positions of the largest consumer of Chinese goods (US), and simultaneously boosted confidence of the biggest manufacturer of American products (PRC). Consequently, soon after; by 2012, Beijing got the first out-of-Deng’s-line leadership. (One of the famous dicatums of this Bismarck of Asia was ‘hide the capabilities, bide your time’ – a pure Bismarckian wisdom to deter any domestic imperialism in hurry.)   

However, in the process of past few decades, Chinese acquired more sophisticated technology, and the American Big tech sophisticated itself in digital authoritarianism.

But, as America (suddenly) returns home, the honeymoon seems over now. (Although heavily criticising Trump in past years, the Biden administration – along with the leading Democrat’s foreign policy intellectuals, is more of the Trumpistic continuity than of a departure from it. It especially refers to the Sino-American relations.)

Why does it come now? Washington is not any more able to afford treating China as just another trading partner. Also, the US is not well situated to capitalize on Beijing’s eventual belligerence – be it compliance or containment (especially with Russia closer to China than it was ever before).[10]  

The typical line of western neo-narrative goes as: ‘The CCP exploited the openness of liberal societies and particularly its freedom of speech as to plunder, penetrate and divert’. And; ‘Beijing has to bear the reputational costs of its exploitative practices’.

Accelerating collision course already leads to the subsequent calls for a strategic decupling (at best, gradual disengagements) of the two world’s largest economies and of those in their orbits. Besides marking the end of global capitalism which exploded since the fall of Berlin Wall, this may finally trigger a global realignment. The rest of the world would end up – willingly or not – in the rival (trade) blocks. It would not be a return to 1950s and 1960s, but to the pre-WWI constellations.

Epilog is plain to see: Neither more confrontation and more carbons nor more weaponized trade and traded weapons will save our day. It failed in our past; it will fail again any given day.

Entrapment in Imitation

Interestingly, China opposed the I World, left the II in rift, and ever since Bandung of 1955 it neither won over nor (truly) joined the III Way. Today, many see it as a main contestant, a leader from the global South. But, where is a lasting success?

There is a near consensus among the economists that China owes its economic success to three fundamental factors. Firstly, it is that the People’s Republic embraced an imitative economic policy (much like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan or ROK did before, or VietNam does now) through Deng-proclaimed opening aided by the tiny middle class of political police and the national army of working class. Second goes to a modest domestic consumption, and German-like thick home savings (steered by the Neo-Mandarin cast of Communist apparatchiks in higher echelons of Beijing ruling court).

Finally, as the third factor that the economists attribute to Chinese miracle, is a low production costs of Sino nation – mostly on expenses of its aging demography, and on expenses of its own labor force and country’s environment.[11]

In short, its growth was neither green, nor inclusive, nor sustainable. Additionally, many would say – while quantifying the negative externalities of Chinese authorita-rianism – that Beijing mixes up its nearly obsessive social control, environmental negligence and its dismal human and minority rights with the right to development.

Therefore, many observers would agree that the so-called China’s miracle is a textbook example of a highly extractive state that generates enormous hidden costs of its development, those being social, environmental and health ones as much as expanding and lasting. And indeed, energy-intensive exports (especially carbon footprint) from China as well as its highly polluting industrial practices (overall ecological footprint) were introduced to and then for a long while tolerated in People’s Republic by the West.

Further on, China accepted a principled relation with the US (Russia, too), but insists on transactional one with its neighbors and BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) clients. This reduces the choice (offered by the two protagonists) on selection between the colonial democracy and authoritarian paternalism.   

None of the above has an international appeal, nor it holds promise to an attainable future. Therefore, no wonder that the Imitative power fights – for at home and abroad – a defensive ideological battle and politics of cultural reaction. Such a reactive status quo has no intellectual appeal to attract and inspire beyond its borders.[12]  

So, if for China the XIX was a “century of humiliation”, XX “century of emancipation”, should it be that the XXI gets labeled as a “century of imitation”?

(The BRI is what the most attribute as an instrument of the Chinese planetary posture. Chinese leaders promised massive infrastructure projects all around by burning trillions of dollars. Still, numbers are more moderate. As the 2019 The II BRI Summit has shown – and the BRI Summits of November 2020 and of 2021 confirmed, so far, Chinese companies had invested USD 90 billion worldwide. Seems, neither People’s Republic is as rich as many (wish to) think nor it will be able to finance its promised projects without seeking for a global private capital. Such a capital –if ever – will not flow without conditionalities. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS or ‘New Development’ – Bank have some $150 billion at hand, and the Silk Road Infrastructure Fund (SRIF) has up to $40 billion. Chinese state and semi-private companies can access – according to the OECD estimates – just another $600 billion (much of it tight) from the home, state-controlled financial sector. That means that China runs short on the BRI deliveries worldwide. Ergo, either bad news to the (BRI) world or the conditionalities’ constrained China.)

How to behave in the world in which economy is made to service trade (as it is defined by the Sino-American high priests of globalization), while (preservation of domestic jobs and) trade increasingly constitutes a significant part of the big power’s national security strategy? And, how to define (and measure) the existential threat: by inferiority of ideological narrative – like during the Cold War; or by a size of a lagging gap in total manufacturing output – like in the Cold War aftermath. Or something third? Perhaps a return to an inclusive growth.

If our civilizational course is still the same – the self-realization of mankind; than the deglobalization would be a final price to pay for re-humanization of labor and overall planetary greening. Are we there yet?

Promise of the Schumann Resonance

Earlier in this text, we already elaborated on imperial fictions and frictions: Empires and superpowers create their own realities, as they are not bound to ‘situation on ground’. For them, the main question is never what they can but what they want in international conduct. However, the (illiberal) bipartisan democracy or one-party autocracy is a false dilemma, both of nearly the same dead end.

Currently, Party slogans call for China to “take center stage” on the world stage and architecture “a community of common destiny for mankind”. But despite heated rhetoric, there is no intellectual appeal in a growth without well-being, education that does not translate into fair opportunity, lives without dignity, liberalization without personal freedom, achievement without opinionisation.

Greening international relations along with a greening of socio-economic fabrics (including the shift to blue and white, sea and wind, energy) – geopolitical and environmental understanding, de-acidification and relaxation is that missing, third, way for tomorrow.

(Judging the countries’ PEM /Primary Energy Mix/ and the manufacturing footprint, the American e-cars are actually run on the tar sands and fracked oil/gas, while Chinese electric vehicles are powered by coal.)

This necessitates both at once: less confrontation over the art-of-day technology and their de-monopolized redistribution as well as the resolute work on the so-called Tesla-ian implosive/fusion-holistic systems. That would include the free-transfer non-Hertzian energy technologies (able to avoid life in an electromagnetic, technologically generated soup of unbearable radiation toxicity, actually able to de-toxicate our troposphere from dangerous fields, waves and frequencies emittance – drawing us closer to a harmony of Schumann resonance); carbon-sequestration; antigravity and self-navigational solutions; bioinformatics and nanorobotics. Surely, with the bioinformatics and nanorobotics being free from any usage for eugenics’ ends (including the vaccination for microchipping purpose).

In short, more of initiative than of obedience (including more public control over data hoovering). More effort to excellence (creation) than a struggle for preeminence (partition). Leader of the world needs to offer more than just money and intimidation.

‘Do like your neighbor’ is a Biblical-sounding economic prophecy that the circles close to the IMF love to tirelessly repeat. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a formidable national economic prosperity, if the good neighborly relations are not built and maintained.[13]  Clearly, no global leader has ever in history emerged from a shaky and distrustful neighborhood, or by offering a little bit more of the same in lieu of an innovative technological advancement.

(Eg. many see Chinese 5G – besides the hazardous electrosmog of IoT that this technology emits on Earth’s biota – as an illiberal innovation, which may end up servicing authoritarianism, anywhere.[14] And indeed, the AI deep learning inspired by biological neurons (neural science) including its three methods: supervised, unsupervised and reinforced learning can end up by being used for the diffusion of digital authoritarianism, predictive policing and manufactured social governance based on the bonus-malus behavioral social credits.[15])

Ergo, it all starts from within, from at home; socio-economically and environmentally. Without support from a home base (including that of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet), there is no game changer. China’s home is Asia. Its size and its centrality along with its impressive output is constraining it enough.

Conclusively, it is not only a new, non-imitative, turn of socioeconomics and technology what is needed. Without truly and sincerely embracing mechanisms such as the NAM, ASEAN and SAARC (eventually even the OSCE) and the main champions of multilateralism in Asia, those being India Indonesia and Japan first of all, China has no future of what is planetary awaited – the third force, a game-changer, discursive power, lasting visionary and trusted global leader.[16]  

If there was ever in history a lasting triumph, this is over by now. In the multipolar world of XXI century dominated by multifaceted challenges and multidimensional rivalries, there is no conventional victory.  Revolution or restauration?

Post Scriptum:

To varying degrees, but all throughout a premodern and modern history, nearly every world’s major foreign policy originator was dependent (and still depends) on what happens in, and to, Russia. So, neither a structure, nor content or overall direction of world affairs for the past 300 years has been done without Russia. It is not only a size, but also a centrality of Russia that matters. That is important as much (if not even more), as it is an omnipresence of the US or a hyperproduction of the PR China. Ergo, that is an uninterrupted flow of manufactured goods to the whole world, it is a balancing of the oversized and centrally positioned one, and it is the ability to controllably corrode the way in and insert itself of the peripheral one. The oscillatory interplay of these three is what characterizes our days.

Therefore, reducing the world affairs to the constellation of only two super-players – China and the US is inadequate – to say least. It is usually done while superficially measuring Russia’s overall standing by merely checking its current GDP, and comparing its volume and PPP, and finding it e.g. equal to one of Italy. Through such ‘quick-fix’, Russia is automatically downgraded to a second-rank power status. This practice is as dangerous as it is highly misleading. Still, that ill-conceived argument is one of the most favored narratives which authors in the West are tirelessly peddling.

What many analysts miss to understand, is in fact plain to see throughout the entire history of Russia: For such a big country the only way to survive – irrespectively from its relative weaknesses by many ‘economic’ parameters – is to always make an extra effort and remain great power (including colossal military expenditures).

To this end, let us quickly contrast the above narrative with some key facts: Russia holds the key positions in the UN and its Agencies as one of its founding members (including the Security Council veto right as one of the P5); it has a highly skilled and mobilized population; its society has deeply rooted sense of a special historic mission (that notion is there for already several centuries – among its intellectuals and enhanced elites, probably well before the US has even appeared as a political entity in the first place). Additionally and tellingly, Moscow possesses the world’s largest gold reserves (on surface and underground; in mines and its treasury bars); for decades, it masters its own GPS system and the most credible outer space delivery systems (including the only remaining working connection with the ISS), and has an elaborate turn-key-ready alternative internet, too. 

Finally, as the US Council of Foreign Relations’ Thomas Graham fairly admits: “with the exception of China, no country affects more issues of strategic and economic importance to the US than Russia. And no other country, it must be said, is capable of destroying the US in 30 minutes.”


[1] Flow and irreversibility (as well as the non-directionality and the Boltzmann’s unfolding) of time is one of the fundamental principles that governs visible (to say; comprehensible) universe. If and when so, the Future itself must be certain, but unshaped. Hence, (directionality of time towards) Future is nothing else but a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics (one of the fundamental principles of chemo-physics that governs us). At the same time, it also has to be (a net sum of) our collective projection onto the next: Collapse of the (multivectoral) probability and its realisation into (a four dimensional) possible tomorrow. For a clerical reason, we tend to deduce future events from human constructs (known as the theoretical principles) or to induce them from deeply rooted/commonly shared visions (known as past experience).

[2] Complementing the Monroe Doctrine, President Howard Taft introduced the so-called ‘dollar diplomacy’ – in early XX c. – that “substitutes dollars for bullets”. This was one of the first official acknowledgements of the Wall Street – Pentagon symbiotic link.  

[3] Average American worker is unprotected, unorganised/disunionised, disoriented, and pauperised. Due to (the US corporate sector induced) colossal growth of China, relative purchasing power of American and Chinese labourer now equals. At present, the median US worker would frictionlessly accept miserable work conditions and dismal pay, not too different from the one of the Chinese labourers – just to get a job. The first to spot that and then wonderfully exploited it, was a Trump team.

[4] E.g. during the peak times of its longest – and fiasco ending – foreign intervention, the US was spending some $110 billion per annum in Afghanistan, roughly 50% more than annual American federal spending on education.)

[5] “A rogue superpower … colossus lacking moral commitments … aggressive, heavily armed, and entirely out for itself. … some US security guaranties have started to look like protection rackets. … participates in international institutions but threatens to leave them when they act against US narrow interests; and promotes democracy and human rights, but mainly to destabilize geopolitical rivals” – enumerates some in the long list of contemporary US sins prof. Beckley (Beckley, M. (2018) Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the world’s Sole Superpower, Cornell University Press).  

[6] Abandoning a traditional bipartisan system, the US is already by now a one-party (illiberal) democracy. Many within the corporate world would accept (even overt) extensive socio-economic reengineering as to transform the system into the one-party autocracy.  

[7] It will forever remain unknown what the MAD (Mutual Destruction Assurances) in the Cold War prevented and deterred: Aggregation of these events is a history (of probabilities) that didn’t unfold. 

[8] Withdrawal of recognition from Formosa to Beijing formally opened relations between the two on 1 January 1979. On a celebratory tour to America later that very month, Deng Xiaoping recommended that China and the US were ‘duty bound to work together [and unite] to place curbs on the polar bear’. 

[9] Non-interference promise between China and the US brought about 3 decades of colossal interdependence between the two: The internal order was in hands of CCP and the international order was in American hands. Neither party was to interfere the affairs of the other. But the paradox of inversion was sudden and severe – the internal order has been strengthened by the US (authoritarian) technology and the international (liberal) order à la Americana has been running on cheap Chinese goods. Changed roles urge for fundamental readjustment of positions.  

[10] The most favoured tool for containment or compliance of the US foreign policy – economic sanctions do not only reveal American decline but accelerate it, too. Instead of being imposed to defend commonly accepted universal principles, they are increasingly imposed for national security reasons – as a stalking horse for trade protectionism. Despite its simplicity of conception and flexibility of application, in retrospect, the crippling potency of sanctions is still sound but historically their effectiveness remains rather modest.

[11] High tech and know-how appropriation via mandated/forced technology transfers and copy-cats, joint ventures, discriminatory patent-licencing practices and cross-sectoral state-led industrial modernisation have lifted China up the value chain. No wonder that its GDP per capita has jumped from $194 (1980) to over $9,000 (2019). Beijing is modernising its navy, and is engaged in international economic expansion and geopolitical projection via its Belt and Road Initiative, and so far has bought, built or is operating 42 ports in 34 countries. In the meantime, Washington is publicly lamenting return to a ‘worker-focused trade policy’ – as the Trump’s US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer called it – and openly objecting to both ‘market-distorting state capitalism in China and a dysfunctional WTO’. “No trade policy decision since the end of WWII proved more devastating to working people than the extension of permanent normal trade relations to China in 2000. Despite President Clinton’s predictions… , the opposite occurred” – he concludes. (FAM, 99/04/20)

[12] Undeniably, China managed to expand its economic presence, but so far is short of any prevailing and lasting strategic influence despite weaponization of trade and overseas aid. Simply, Beijing achieved some short-term objectives, but China’s long-term strategic influence remains limited and reversable. People’s Republic did not secure major shifts in geopolitical alignments. Beijing still has to learn how its grand strategy might play in different geographic and socio-political contexts. While the US-led west becomes disappointment, China provoked backlash instead of gaining global support and adoration. Clearly, political control, economic growth, surveillance and transport infrastructure alone do not necessarily make a durable nation. Having all that without psychological attachment and moral sentiment cannot sustain cohesion of nation on long run.   

[13] Fully aware of it, China and Russia (in their historical and yet still ongoing rapprochement) are pushing on a new Asian continental/regional security organisation. Building on the best legacy of comprehensive pan-European security mechanism – that of the Vienna-based OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), these two are committing themselves to and inviting their neighbours to join with the CICBMA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia), architecting the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and the QCCM (Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism). It is on a top of already elaborate SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and well-functioning economic FORAs – China-run AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and Russia-backed EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union). Hence, in a matter of just two decades the central section of Eurasian continent became the most multilateralised – and therefore stabile, region of the world. The collective one is far better than the bilateral or selective/Ad Hoc security arrangement preferred by the US in the Asia-Pacific. Alliances are built on shared interested, solidified by formulated principles and maintained on reliability and predictability – hence, are structural stabilisers. 

[14] Seems that China leads but is not alone with its much-criticised bonus-malus social credit system powered by facial recognition technology. Human Rights monitory agencies (including the US Carnegie Endowment’s AI Global Surveillance Index) report that practically each and every of the G-20 countries extensively uses the AI-enabled surveillance appliances, including variety of facial recognition programs, aimed at social ‘predictability’. Not to mention that such new technologies are particularly dangerous for weak democracies since many of their digital tools are dual use technology.

[15] Technology, its innovation and to it related norm-setting institutions are not a fancy item for round-tables’ discussions – it is a central element of contemporary global and regional geopolitical competition. Finally, data is nonrival, but data is also disruptive if not encapsulated in clear rules of engagement. 

[16] Over the past perido, People’s Republic has upped the ante in nearly all of its many territorial disputes and even provoked new ones, in another departure from past practice. Beijing has also reversed course when it comes to its national periphery. “Past Chinese leaders, notably Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, believed in the institutionalized processes of collective leadership. Xi has disabled or neutralized many of these channels. The world may now be getting a sense of what China’s decision-making looks like when a singularly strong leader acts more or less on his own” – noted professor Rapp-Hooper recently in her book. That of course triggers constant shockwaves all over Asia. While Indonesia is contemplating the NAM’s reload as well as the ASEAN block strengthening, others are reactive. India and Japan, two other Asian heavyweights (and champions of multilateralism), are lately pushed to sign up on the so-called Indo-Pacific maritime strategy with the United States (balancing the recent Pacific trade deal of RCEP). However, none of these three has any coherent plan on what to do on the Asian mainland. They all three differ on passions, drives and priorities. This is so since the truly pan-continental organization is nonexistent in Asia.

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The Forgotten Analogy: World War II

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Pundits are searching for adequate analogies to explain the growing China-U.S. rivalry and predict its future direction. Two main ones appear: the pre-World War I era and the Cold War. Both have their merits. The early twentieth century pitted Germany, a rising power, against status quo Britain and France. The Cold War also shares similarities to the current situation. The United States engaged in a prolonged struggle to contain a nuclear-armed great power. However, neither the Cold War nor the First World War offers an entirely appropriate analogy to make sense of the current world order.

Wilhelmine Germany was a formidable power but it largely stood alone, cornered in the center of Europe. London, Paris, and Saint Petersburg had an easy time concentrating their forces to balance against Berlin. Although it had Asia as secondary and the rest of the globe as tertiary theaters, the heart of the Cold War was also Central Europe. There were only two great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, wholly occupied checkmating each other. 

Today’s international politics differs by the number and locations of the main protagonists. Although China legitimately attracts most of the attention, Russia remains a great power. Both China and Russia are the sole great powers of their respective regions — Asia and Europe. Both are bent on correcting the balance of power to their advantage and pushing the United States out of their neighborhood. On its side, Washington has a deep-seated interest in making sure that no great power competitor dominates Asia or Europe because both regions concentrate a big share of the world’s wealth and advanced industries. Indeed, a regional hegemon in possession of such resources would be strong enough to potentially overpower the United States. 

Washington found itself in the same position during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Nazi Germany had become the strongest power on the European continent and seemed bound to dominate all of it. Imperial Japan’s bid for Asian hegemony was unfolding unabated. The Americans had a vested interest in ensuring that neither Berlin nor Tokyo would seize control of their neighborhood because local powers were unlikely to get the job done on their own. It is now Beijing and Moscow occupying these roles.

Asia and China

China is the strongest state in Asia by a wide margin. No regional state can counterbalance Beijing on its own. Even a coalition of current U.S. partners — say Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea — would likely be too weak to seriously deter China without America’s support and strength. If Washington wants to prevent a Chinese bid for regional hegemony, it needs to throw its weight behind the balancing effort.

During the World War II era, America had to work alongside allies with widely divergent interests (notably Britain, Free France, and the Soviet Union) against the would-be German and Japanese hegemons. In a similar vein, the United States needs to help repair the relations between Japan and South Korea and accommodate those who have had rocky relations with Washington (India, Vietnam) or that are non-democracies (Singapore). The sheer power of China and the challenge of putting together a working balancing coalition imposes to the United States an “Asia First” strategy in the same way that the Third Reich’s superior military and industrial capabilities forced “Europe First” during World War II.

Another similarity with the World War II era is that power dynamics are rapidly changing. In Europe, the primary focus of American planners, Germany was with little doubt the strongest power on the continent. But the balance of power was evolving and the Soviet Union, still reeling from its civil war and Stalin’s purges, appeared to the Germans as a rising threat. Today, Beijing is growingly wary of India, a state as populous as (and very soon, probably more than) China and enjoying economic growth rates superior to China’s.

Europe and Russia

While most Asian states are directly exposed to Chinese military power, the states of Western and Southern Europe are separated from Russia by several other states in-between. Therefore, many European states feel less threatened by Russia and have been slow to balance against Moscow. Although France has been increasing its military spending and Britain vowed to redeploy heavy forces to Germany, these small incremental changes do little to correct the overwhelming military superiority of Moscow. No Western European state is ready or willing to confront Russian power head-on. Europe needs American leadership for that. It is not unlike the late 1930s, when the Soviet Union, separated from Germany by Poland, readily passed the buck of containing Berlin to London and Paris, with disastrous results.

On paper, European states — most notably Britain, France, and Germany — have enough latent capabilities to counterbalance Russian power. But geography and the collective action problem stand in the way. Indeed, Russia is not an immediate threat to Western Europe like the Soviet Union was. Today’s Russian army is unable to threaten the survival of France or Germany due to the East-Central European states acting as a buffer. Even if the Western Europeans acknowledge the resurgence of Russian power and are slowly rearming, they just do not feel the same sense of urgency as in Eastern Europe.

Collective action is difficult when many actors have to provide for a common good. An instinct is to do as little balancing as possible and wait for others to take the mantle of deterring Russia. Also, with no clear leader, effective decision-making is unlikely. Berlin, London, Paris, and others will push for their own preferences, thus resulting in lowest-common-denominator policies and under-balancing. Russia would then be free to cherry-pick its small neighbors and subjugate opposition. Eventually, Western Europeans would balance more effectively; but by the time they do so, Russia will have grown its power base and will already dominate Eastern Europe, thus representing a far more formidable challenge.

NATO is a powerful but imperfect tool to contain a Russian aspirant hegemon. The misaligned interest between many western and southern states and those closest to Russia stands in the way of effective balancing. A potential cure would be to form an additional smaller and more focused alliance system of Poland as the main bulwark, the Czech Republic, Romania, the three Baltic states, and maybe Sweden. In any case, to overcome buck-passing tendencies and problems of coordination, American political leadership is inescapable.

No Easy Fix

Historical analogies are always risky and no situation ever recurs in the exact same way. Yet, if we are to compare the current international situation with a past example, the World War II analogy appears more powerful than the World War I and Cold War ones.

Indeed, the United States faces the same conundrum of having to deal with two formidable rivals on two different continents. World War II had Germany as the most powerful opponent and Europe as the theater concentrating the most resources. Now, both the strongest competitor and the main loot are in Asia. During World War II, U.S. policymakers wanted to focus their forces on taking down Germany but they also had to cope with Japan out of fear that Tokyo would successfully absorb much of East and Southeast Asia and become a far greater threat than it already was. Today, although Russia lacks the power potential of China and Asia has now more wealth than Europe, with potential hegemons in both Asia and Europe, Washington is forced into a gigantic act of dual containment. Therefore, the same dilemma that plagued the United States eight decades ago plagues the Americans of today. 

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There is no roadblock in the way of improving Sino-US ties

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photo: Tehran Times

According to my long-term observations, the challenge that the US strategic circle has been confronted with in assessing Sino-US ties is: How to comprehend China? What is the best strategy for dealing with China? What is the proper topic for researching Sino-American relations? If they have a more objective perspective of China and a more reasonable understanding of China’s growth, there will be less friction between China and the US, and bilateral ties will develop more smoothly. Otherwise, there will be additional difficulties and twists and turns.

Of course, the United States has no shortage of discerning and young people. Nixon and Kissinger, for example, ventured to question American society, “Should the United States open the door to China?” “Should US-China relations be broken?” They had the “Ice-Melting Theory” because the questions they presented were valid. Despite the fact that diplomatic ties have not yet been established, Nixon has decided to visit China as President of the United States.

Such an accomplishment is still remarkable and admirable. Because the topic they propose is appropriate, their efforts will live on in the annals of history and will be remembered in perpetuity. In truth, the Chinese did not have the present degree of awareness of the United States at the time, and the “Cultural Revolution” had not yet finished. Even if the sign on the edge of the Beijing airport welcoming President Nixon remained “Down with US imperialism.”

Despite the removal of the Beijing Airport tagline, Nixon’s successors have always had a swinging perception of China, whether clear or muddy, straight or crooked, and floating. As a result, Sino-American ties have been bumpy along the road. Because some Americans misunderstood the subject of China studies, the ensuing misconceptions appear to be a black cloud in the sky of Sino-US relations; when the dark cloud appears, the US and China will lose ground in their interactions with China.

The current challenges in Sino-US relations are likewise similar: there are both black clouds of the so-called “China threat theory” and aggressive actions continually unleashed by the US administration, which throws a shadow on US policy toward China while also casting a shade on the US itself. There are several impediments to growth. In truth, the different “evidences” of the so-called “China Threat Theory” are not difficult to understand and do not need profound knowledge or secrets that cannot be made public.

Viewing China’s peaceful development trend honestly and logically is not an insurmountable challenge for Americans. Nixon and Kissinger of the United States strove hard 50 years ago not to “hide from the clouds.” Today, the US likewise has no need to invent a slew of fictitious “reasons for China threats” in order to keep Sino-US ties from improving!

Otherwise, I’m not sure whether future Americans will be able to answer the question, “Who lost China?” However, as the adage goes, “the house leaks and rains,” referring to the ongoing epidemic of the new crown epidemic, which prevents direct face-to-face connection. The hurdles, which include psychological and emotional barriers, have exacerbated the difficulty of removing these black clouds.

Expressions like “I am in you, and you are in me,” “Everything is thriving, and everything is lost,” and “Global Village” are also taught from American scholars, and they reflect true developments in Sino-US ties. As far as I am aware, virtually few researchers over the age of 40 in American academic circles have not been inspired by the thesis of “interdependence.” As a result, they recognize the importance of interdependence and will not turn a blind eye to the breadth and depth of dependency between China and the United States today.

The United States and China’s interdependence today is extensive, multi-layered, and multi-faceted. It is a network structure system that is vertically and horizontally interwoven and coexists peacefully. What exactly is “hehe”? It is designed to meet the demands of both China and the United States. If the difficulties of matching and matching between the two nations via peace and collaboration is unique in history, then the matching and matching accomplished between the two countries after a half-century of hard effort is also exceptional. There are few countries in the world that can be compared to it, and none that can replace it.

To put it another way, the compatibility that China and the US require may be achieved through hard work. Even though China and the United States do not share the same destiny or synergy for the time being, the American people’s everyday lives are nearly inextricably linked to China. Based on this, I’ve understood the truth: the mutual relationship’s ability to shift from danger to safety is due to their interdependence, and no one can abandon others. This is the heart and soul of Sino-American ties. There is no justification for anybody to overlook this basic due to the disagreement between them, let alone dig out the roots and harm the truth!

There is no obstacle that cannot be overcome in order for Sino-US relations to develop, because there are always more solutions than challenges. The author has firsthand knowledge of the development process that occurred after the “hard ice” of Sino-US ties was cracked. I’ve witnessed both the flowering spring and the dismal winter that appears to be on its way. Even if “apes on both sides of the strait couldn’t cry,” they can nonetheless show up. Situation in which “the light boat has crossed ten thousand huge mountains.” Following the upheaval of the late 1980s, Sino-US relations were practically intolerable, and they persisted until the end of 1991, with little indications of improvement.

There is no obstacle that cannot be overcome in order for Sino-US relations to develop, because there are always more solutions than challenges. Following the upheaval of the late 1980s, Sino-US relations were practically intolerable, and they persisted until the end of 1991, with little indications of improvement. On January 24, 1992, excellent news came out of Chinese diplomacy in the midst of such a “severe winter”: Following a brief conversation with Israel, they agreed to formally establish diplomatic ties without any impediments, based on the strong affinity forged in the history of the Chinese and Jewish peoples. The two countries’ long-awaited wish. The positive news of the creation of diplomatic relations between China and Israel has taken the Jewish world by surprise and has had a significant impact on the inclination of the American media to report on China issues.

There are many Chinese in the United States, and most Chinese expect Sino-US ties to strengthen. Only until Sino-American ties improve will Chinese people have a place and be appreciated in the United States. Foreigners will also consider a person’s “birth background,” which is natural and nothing strange; if the “birth background” is favorable, they will be “admired.” China is also the “birthplace” of Chinese people in the United States. Chinese in the United States have put in a lot of effort and made significant contributions to the establishment of stable and seamless Sino-US ties. This tradition is not only alive and well, but also thriving.

There are a considerable number of Americans who rely on China-related employment, business, and investment, whether in China or the United States. Only until Sino-US ties improve will they be able to focus only on China-related professions, business, and investment, and they despise “McCarthyism.” As a result, they anticipate that Sino-US ties will improve, which is unavoidable.

For example, in July 1990, at the invitation of the “National Committee on U.S.-China Relations,” then-Shanghai Mayor Zhu Rongji led a delegation of Chinese mayors to the United States, aiming to dispel U.S. government and opposition to China’s reform and opening up through the development of Pudong.

The Sino-US relationship, which was harmed by the late 1980s instability, also sought an agreement from the US Congress to prolong China’s most-favored-nation status. According to Zhu Rongji’s suggestion, Shanghai organized a delegation of scholars led by Ding Xinghao from the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, Hong Wenda from the Department of Economics at Fudan University, Yao Tinggang from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, and Yao Tinggang from the Department of International Politics at Fudan University. Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade’s Zhou Dunren and Zhou Hanmin are made up of five persons.

These five people’s round-trip travel expenditures were not covered at the time. When the National Committee on US-China Relations learned about the situation, they quickly said that they would offer it in its entirety. American friends are very ruthless! At the time, Sino-US ties were exceedingly tense, but China had made many American friends via bilateral exchanges with the US, as well as diplomatic assets for the growth of Sino-US relations. Trusted friends will provide genuine assistance in times of need.

As a result, the Chinese mayor delegation led by Zhu Rongji’s tour to the United States outperformed expectations. Friends such as the “National Committee on US-China Relations” are not only there, but numerous. This decision should be practical and in line with objective reality. Furthermore, the US still has a vast number of international challenges that cannot be managed by one country alone and necessitate China’s assistance. There are still many shared interests between China and the United States that must be pursued in order for individual interests to be realized. There are several elements that benefit both China and the United States. The challenge is how to make the most of these advantageous circumstances. The overarching theme is how to persuade Americans to view China’s peaceful growth trend objectively and rationally.

In sum, their concept of the character of the United States has been constantly painted and has not been in place for a long time. The examination of the character of the United States, on the other hand, differs from the policy of international affairs in the United States. The primary purpose of US strategy is to enable the US to comprehend China objectively and logically. There is still a lot of opportunity for improvement.

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Naftali Bennett Highlights Tech and Trade, Bridge-Building and Climate Change

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel used his address to the Davos Agenda 2022 to highlight the role of digital...

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